UN panel confronts Vatican on child sex abuse by clergy

Archbishop Silvano Tomasi: "We are committed to holding inviolable the dignity ... of every child"

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The Vatican has been confronted publicly for the first time over the sexual abuse of children by clergy, at a UN hearing in Geneva.

Officials faced a barrage of hard questions covering why they would not release data and what they were doing to prevent future abuse.

They insisted the Church had learnt from the crisis and had taken action to prevent future abuse.

Victims' advocates complained there was still too little transparency.

Last month, the Vatican refused a request from the UN's Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) for data on abuse, on the grounds that it only released such information if requested to do so by another country as part of legal proceedings.

Start Quote

The Holy See gets it that there are things that need to be done differently”

End Quote Bishop Charles Scicluna Member of Vatican delegation at hearing

The Vatican came to Geneva expecting a rough ride and it got one, the BBC's Imogen Foulkes reports.

Victims say they hope the hearing, which is being broadcast live, will prompt the Church to end its "secrecy".

Pope Francis announced last month that a Vatican committee would be set up to fight sexual abuse of children in the Church.

The Holy See is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, a legally binding instrument which commits it to protecting and nurturing the most vulnerable in society.

Teodoro Pulvirenti, who was abused as a teenager by an Italian priest: "It's time for the church to stop the secrecy"

It ratified the convention in 1990 but after an implementation report in 1994 it did not submit any progress reports until 2012, following revelations of child sex abuse in Europe and beyond.

In a homily on Thursday, Pope Francis said abuse scandals were "the shame of the Church".

'Not very transparent'

"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," Kirsten Sandberg, chairwoman of the 18-strong CRC, told the Vatican delegation.

"It seems to date your procedures are not very transparent."

The Vatican was asked why it continued to describe abuse as an offence against morals rather than a crime against children.

Catholic Church abuse scandals

  • Germany - A priest, named only as Andreas L, admitted in 2012 to 280 counts of sexual abuse involving three boys over a decade
  • United States - Revelations about abuses in the 1990s by two Boston priests, Paul Shanley and John Geoghan, caused public outrage
  • Belgium - The bishop of Bruges, Roger Vangheluwe, resigned in April 2010 after admitting that he had sexually abused a boy for years
  • Italy - The Catholic Church in Italy admitted in 2010 that about 100 cases of paedophile priests had been reported over 10 years
  • Ireland - A report in 2009 found that sexual and psychological abuse was "endemic" in Catholic-run industrial schools and orphanages for most of the 20th century

"Does the Holy See believe that paedophilia is something that can be successfully overcome?" was another question.

Archbishop Silvano Tomasi said: "To prevent abuse of minors is a real, immediate concern."

On prosecution of offenders, he said priests were "not functionaries of the Vatican but citizens of their countries and fall under the jurisdiction of their own countries".

When asked if the Vatican would hand over Archbishop Jozef Wesolowski, a Polish papal envoy recalled from the Dominican Republic in September amid claims of sexual abuse there, Archbishop Tomasi said he was being investigated by the Vatican's own prosecutors.

A member of the CRC asked about the Church's practice of moving priests suspected of abuse.

"It is a no-go simply to move people from one diocese to another," said Bishop Charles Scicluna, the Vatican's former chief prosecutor of clerical sexual abuse.

He insisted it was "not the policy of the Holy See to encourage cover-ups" but added: "The Holy See gets it that there are things that need to be done differently."

'Refused to answer'

While Thursday's questions were numerous and far-ranging, some observers vented frustration at the lack of specific answers.

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"Holy See: 'We get it' in UN review on child sexual abuse Catholic Church," wrote the children's rights watchdog CRIN in a tweet. "Do you? Why then don't you make statistics public?"

Barbara Blaine, president of a group representing US victims of abuse by priests, told BBC News that the hearing had brought "hope to victims across the globe".

But it would also stand, she said, as a "record of how the Church officials refused to answer the questions, how they claim to be open and transparent, and yet they don't live up to that ideal".

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