The Vatican attempted to minimize its culpability over the Catholic Church’s child sexual abuse scandal as a UN committee on torture grilled the institution over it alleged “climate of impunity” which has prevailed for decades.
In a two-hour hearing in Geneva, the Committee Against Torture was unrelenting in its questioning of the Vatican delegation, asking about past policy decisions, the juridical distinction between the Holy See and Vatican City, and information on specific cases, Reuters reports.
The Vatican, which is set to issue a formal answer on Tuesday, said the church has been cleaning house for the past decade and was determined to protect children further with a series of measures, which they say has led to a decline in cases of sexual abuse by priests.
Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican's UN ambassador in Geneva, maintained that the treaty only applied to the Vatican City, which covers an area of less than half a square kilometer and numbers fewer than 1,000. Tomasi said that although the Holy See can be viewed as a moral force, the “agent of justice” for crimes perpetuated against Catholics were the authorities in the states where those offenses occurred.
“It should be stressed, particularly in light of much confusion, that the Holy See has no jurisdiction,” he said in opening remarks.
"The Holy See intends to focus exclusively on the Vatican City state," he told the committee. "State authorities are obligated to protect and when necessary to prosecute persons under their jurisdiction."
But committee member, Felice Gaer, asked if the Vatican was in fact being proactive in cleaning house internally, why had the institution’s first report to the committee been filed 9 years late. Gaer, an American human rights expert, further took issue with the church’s “alleged distinction” between the Vatican City and the Holy See, which can roughly be viewed as the central government of the Catholic Church.
The differentiation, she said, "would create important gaps in the coverage" of the treaty and is a "troubling" bit of legalese, AP reports.
"We call for all parties to adhere to the strict meaning of
the convention," Gaer told the Vatican delegation led by
The Vatican delegation's appearance in Geneva marks the first time that the committee charged with enforcing the UN Convention Against Torture, which the Vatican ratified in 2002, has hauled the Holy See before its members.
If a UN committee finds the abuse within the church is paramount to torture and inhuman treatment, that could open the floodgates to abuse lawsuits dating back decades because there are no statute of limitations on torture cases, Katherine Gallagher, a human rights attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights, a nonprofit legal group based in New York, told AP. The group submitted reports on behalf of victims to both committees urging closer UN scrutiny of the church’s record on child abuse.
Before the hearing, Vatican spokesman, Federico Lombardi, further warned the UN not to be swayed by “strongly ideological” NGOs which were attempting to manipulate the proceedings with their own agendas.
"The extent to which this is specious and forced is clear to any unbiased observer," he said, adding that the Vatican hoped for an "objective" dialogue that was "pertinent to the text of the [UN human rights] conventions and their objectives,” the Guardian reports.
"Otherwise, the conventions may be distorted and the committees risk losing authority and being reduced to tools of ideological pressure rather than a necessary stimulus towards the desired progress in promoting respect for human rights," said Lombardi.
Lombardi’s strongly worded statement comes 3 months after the UN Human Rights Committee blamed the Vatican for indulging longstanding policies enabling priests to sexually abuse children. The committee demanded that the church open pedophile files and disclose the names of those clergymen who assisted in concealing such crimes.
A scathing UN report published at the time accused the Holy See of a systematic blackout concerning the molestation of children, claiming that tens of thousands of children have been raped by priests.
“The Committee is gravely concerned that the Holy See has not acknowledged the extent of the crimes committed, has not taken the necessary measures to address cases of child sexual abuse and to protect children, and has adopted policies and practices which have led to the continuation of the abuse and the impunity of the perpetrators,” said the report.
The UN committee also severely criticized the Vatican for its
attitudes toward contraception and abortion, and urged it to
teach sex education in Catholic schools to ensure children's
rights and their access to health care are guaranteed.
In its response to the report, the Vatican said it regrets seeing what it called “an attempt to interfere with Catholic Church teaching on the dignity of human person and in the exercise of religious freedom.”