It was never going to be easy. But on Thursday, for the first time ever, two high-ranking prelates representing the Holy See in front of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child faced a barrage of questions about the Catholic Church’s abhorrent record on pedophile priests and what the church has done to harbor known offenders.
Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Holy See’s representative to the United Nations in Geneva, presented carefully prepared remarks to the 18-member committee, admitting fault where the Church has previously conceded it failed and outlining policies that adhere to the global standard on child protection. “Confronted with this reality, the Holy See has carefully delineated policies and procedures designed to help eliminate such abuse and to collaborate with respective State authorities to fight against this crime,” he told the panel. “The Holy See is also committed to listen carefully to victims of abuse and to address the impact such situations have on survivors of abuse and on their families.”
The Holy See also sent along Bishop Charles Scicluna, the Vatican’s former chief prosecutor of sex abuse cases who, during the height of his career in Rome, did not refer a single priest, bishop or cardinal to secular authorities even though there were ample cases of known abuse. Instead, Scicluna defrocked, transferred or otherwise neutralized predators and those who covered them up. He was at the questioning to serve as back-up to Tomasi, who took the lead as the Vatican’s man in Geneva.
The special panel was called to give the Holy See a chance to clarify its second periodic report to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which the Vatican is a signatory. The Vatican had not done its homework on the initial report, and the committee had asked for further clarification on a variety of issues last July. Some of the questions were tough, such as those asking the Holy See to quantify the abuse and qualify “the measures in place to ensure that no member of the clergy currently accused of sexual abuse be allowed to remain in contact with children as well as the specific cases where immediate measures were taken to prevent them from being in continued contact with children as well as the cases where priests where transferred to other parishes or to other States where they continued to have access to and abuse children.”
Despite the Holy See’s representatives’ promises to model the “best practice” on child sex abuse, the UN committee pressed for more specific details. “The view of committee is that the best way to prevent abuses is to reveal old ones—openness instead of sweeping offences under the carpet,” charged Kirsten Sandberg, who led the panel discussions. “It seems to date your procedures are not very transparent.”
Much to the disappointment of victims groups, the Vatican representatives apparently punted on the hardest questions, saying there was little they could do to punish priests in the field.
Sara Oviedo, who is the committee’s primary human-rights investigator, pushed the prelates about the Vatican’s so-called “zero tolerance” police. “Then why were there efforts to cover up and obscure these types of cases?” she asked.
Another committee member, Maria Rita Parisi, asked what the Vatican’s shortcomings may have meant to the victims. “If these events continue to be hidden and covered up, to what extent will children be affected?” she asked.
“The Holy See gets it, let’s not say too late,” Scicluna countered. “There are certainly things that need to be done differently. It is not the policy of the Holy See to encourage cover-ups. Only the truth will help us move on to a situation where we can start being an example of best practice.” Still, he glossed over allegations that the Vatican has thousands of undisclosed records on sex-abuse complaints from all over the world, and instead told the committee that since he left the position as sex abuse prosecutor, the Vatican has launched 612 new investigations into clerical sex abuse. He said that 465 of these were grave cases that would surely result in disciplinary action and 418 of the new investigations involved minors. Scicluna specifically brought up the case of Polish Archbishop Jozef Wesolowski, who is accused of sex abuse in the Dominican Republic and who will be facing a criminal trial before a Vatican tribunal. He didn’t mention that a Polish extradition request for Wesolowski, who is also accused of abuse in Poland, was denied by the Vatican this week, meaning he will only face charges in the Vatican, not in a secular court.
The prelates also pointed to Pope Francis’s new commission to address sex abuse cases that, once in place, will work to protect children and ensure a global policy.
Much to the disappointment of victims groups, the Vatican representatives apparently punted on the hardest questions, saying there was little they could do to punish priests in the field. “Priests are not functionaries of the Vatican,” Tomasi told the committee. “Priests are citizens of their own states, and they fall under the jurisdiction of their own country.” The biggest complaint of victims rights groups has long been that local diocese fail to cooperate when it comes to priest abuse and instead hinder secular investigations by hiding offending clerics.
Mary Caplan of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), a 25-year old group that has almost 20,000 members worldwide, said the group was disappointed by the prelates’ responses to the UN commission. “These clerics said some nice things today in Geneva. But unfortunately, the encouraging public words today by Catholic officials differ radically from the actual and distressing private behavior of Catholic officials,” she said in a statement sent to The Daily Beast. “Before the cameras, the church hierarchy often denounces predators and thanks victims. But behind closed doors, the church hierarchy often protects predators and rebuffs victims.”