Vatican forced to face questions from UN over sex abuse

The Vatican faced a barrage of pointed questions from a United Nations panel on Thursday about how it had handled decades of reports of clergy sexual abuse, the first such prolonged interrogation by an international body and a moment long awaited by abuse victims in many countries.

Vatican representatives insisted that abuse cases were not primarily the responsibility of the Vatican, but of local dioceses and law enforcement officials with the authority to investigate, prosecute and punish perpetrators. But in their remarks, the Vatican officials said that the church could and should do better to prevent these crimes.

Bishop Charles J. Scicluna, who was the Vatican’s chief prosecutor of sexual abuse until 2012, told the panel: “The Holy See gets it. Let’s not say too late or not, but there are certain things that need to be done differently.”

The hearing in Geneva happened on the same day that Pope Francis celebrated morning Mass alongside an American cardinal who was widely disgraced last year in the abuse scandal. At the Mass, Francis delivered a homily about scandal in the church, never mentioning sexual abuse, but speaking of “those failings of priests, bishops, laity.”

“But are we ashamed?” Francis said, according to a Vatican Radio transcript. “So many scandals that I do not want to mention individually, but all of us know.”

The United Nations committee in Geneva was looking into the Vatican’s failure to adhere to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which calls on signers to protect children from harm, including sexual and physical abuse. The committee will issue final observations and recommendations on Feb. 5, but it has no authority to issue sanctions, and its recommendations are nonbinding.

The Center for Constitutional Rights, based in New York and representing victims of abuse, submitted reams of documents and victims’ testimony as evidence that the Vatican had allowed abusers to remain in ministry and shuttled them to different locations without informing law enforcement officials or local parishes.

The committee questioned the Vatican officials about their ambassador to the Dominican Republic, who is being investigated by Dominican prosecutors about accusations that he sexually abused children. The ambassador, Archbishop Josef Wesolowski, was recalled to the Vatican in August, and last week the Vatican denied a request to extradite him to the Dominican Republic.

Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican’s representative to the United Nations in Geneva, told the panel that the ambassador’s case would be handled by a Vatican tribunal because he is a citizen of the Vatican, and that the case would get “the severity it deserves.”

Sara de Jesús Oviedo Fierro, the United Nations committee’s vice president, asked the Vatican representatives why, if the church had a policy of “zero tolerance” of abusers, there were “efforts to cover up and obscure these types of cases?”

Bishop Scicluna said: “It is not the policy of the Holy See to encourage cover-ups. This is against the truth.”

The panel questioned Bishop Scicluna persistently about why the Holy See does not make it mandatory for local dioceses to report abuse to civil authorities. Many countries do not require such reporting. “Our guidelines have always said the domestic law of the country needs to be followed,” he said.

Barbara Blaine, the president of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, in Geneva for the hearing, said in a telephone news conference during a break that survivors were grateful to the United Nations committee. “Even if one child is kept safe, all of this will be worth it,” she said. But at the end of the day she said it was “insulting and disingenuous” for Vatican officials to say local courts were responsible for bringing about justice “when it’s church officials who are obstructing justice.”

In Rome, meanwhile, Francis celebrated morning Mass and held a private audience with Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, the former archbishop of Los Angeles, who was publicly shamed last year after documents revealed he had a history of protecting priests accused of sexual abuse.

Cardinal Mahony was relieved of his public duties early last year by his successor after the court-ordered release of documents chronicling decades of mishandling people accused of being sexual predators in the Los Angeles archdiocese.

On Wednesday, Cardinal Mahony took to Twitter and his blog to broadcast his delight about his time with the pope. The cardinal wrote that most of their private conversation was about the plight of immigrants and refugees, and what the church could do to help them. But he noted that Francis’ homily during the Mass was about scandal.

Francis preached, “Scandals in the church happen because there is no living relationship with God and his word.”

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