GENEVA — 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 its policies and culture of secrecy contributed to the global priest sex abuse scandal, the Vatican was called to account.
U.N. experts interrogated The Holy See for eight hours Thursday about the scale of abuse and what it was doing to prevent it, marking the first time the Vatican was 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.
Critics alleged 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.”