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UN grills Vatican over sex abuse cases

The dressing down came in the unlikeliest of places, a stuffy U.N. conference room before an obscure human rights committee. After decades of fending off accusations that its policies and culture of secrecy had contributed to the global priest sex abuse scandal, the Vatican was called to account.

U.N. experts interrogated The Holy See for eight hours on Thursday about the scale of abuse and what it was doing to prevent it, marking the first time the Vatican had been forced to defend its record at length or in public.

It resembled a courtroom cross-examination, only no question was off-limits, dodging the answer wasn't an option and the proceedings were webcast live.

The Vatican was compelled to appear before the committee as a signatory to the U.N. Convention for the Rights of the Child, which among other things calls for governments to take all adequate measures to protect children from harm and ensure their interests are placed above all else.

The Holy See was one of the first states to ratify the treaty in 1990, eager to contribute the church's experience in caring for children in Catholic schools, hospitals, orphanages and refugee centres. The Holy See submitted a first implementation report in 1994, but didn't provide progress reports for nearly two decades until 2012.

By then, the clerical sex abuse scandal had exploded around the globe: thousands of priests were accused of raping and molesting thousands of children over decades while their bishops moved them from parish to parish rather than report them to police. Critics allege the Holy See, the central government of the 1.2-billion strong Catholic Church, contributed to the problem by encouraging a culture of secrecy to protect the church's reputation at the expense of victims.

At times, the exchanges were sharp Thursday.

"How can we address this whole systematic policy of silencing of victims?" asked committee member Benyam Mezmur, an Ethiopian academic. "There are two principles that I see are being undermined in a number of instances, namely transparency and accountability."

Monsignor Charles Scicluna, the Vatican's former sex crimes prosecutor, replied: "I am with you when you say that all of these nice words will not mean anything ... if there is not more transparency and accountability on the local level."

The Vatican insisted it had little jurisdiction to sanction pedophile priests.

"Priests are not functionaries of the Vatican," Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican's U.N. ambassador in Geneva, told the committee. "Priests are citizens of their own states, and they fall under the jurisdiction of their own country."

Victims groups, though, called such a defence hollow given the clear directions Vatican officials for decades gave to bishops to not turn their abusing priests in to police and to keep the cases in-house and confidential.

"When they say that these crimes should be prosecuted by states, it seems so disingenuous because we know that the church officials at the state level obstruct those efforts to bring justice," said Barbara Blaine, president of the main U.S. victims group SNAP.

The scene inside the conference room at the headquarters of the U.N. human rights office was remarkable by U.N. standards, with committee members themselves marveling at how an institution as powerful as the Holy See could be hauled before a relatively obscure committee to answer uncomfortable questions before a packed audience.

It also was remarkable by Vatican standards. Traditionally the Holy See has insisted that the Vatican as an institution bore little or no responsibility for the problem, blaming scandals and cases on individual priests or their bishops over whom the Vatican has no real control.

While insisting on that legal separation, the Vatican did respond to questions about cases even where it had no jurisdiction or involvement, and on many occasions welcomed recommendations on ways to make children safer.

"The Holy See gets it," Scicluna told the committee. "Let's not say too late or not. But there are certain things that need to be done differently."

Scicluna has been credited even by victims with helping bring the Vatican around over the past decade, overhauling its internal norms to make it easier to defrock abusers and calling for greater accountability by bishops who allowed priests to roam free.

And while the Vatican in 2010 for the first time publicly encouraged bishops to co-operate with police investigating abusers, it came with a hedge: only where local reporting laws require it.

As a result, victims groups said they were not impressed by the Vatican's performance or pledges, though they said they appreciated the seriousness with which the committee members grilled the delegation.

"I think it is a step in the process," said Ton Leerschool, co-founder of Survivors Voice Europe. "It's already quite historic that this happened. That there would not be real results, I expected that from this meeting."

The U.N. committee is made up of independent experts — not other U.N. member states — and it will deliver final observations and nonbinding recommendations on Feb. 5. The committee has no ability to sanction the Vatican for any shortcomings, but the process is aimed at encouraging, and sometimes shaming, treaty signatories into honouring their international commitments.

The Canadian Press

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