Victims' rights advocates say that they hope today's unprecedented grilling in Geneva of Vatican officials could be a turning point for the church's handling of abuse.
But despite familiar defenses from the Holy See concerning its role in child-abuse scandals, victims and their advocates are hopeful that the shame of being questioned in public could propel significant change within the church.
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in Geneva posed charged, blunt questions to senior Vatican officials today, the first time that they had been called to defend their record on the rape of thousands of children by clergy in front of an international body. The Catholic Church ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990 but failed to provide the required progress reports for more than a decade, with victims’ groups accusing the church hierarchy of fostering a culture of secrecy to hide abuse of children by priests, monks, and nuns in countries around the world, from Italy and Ireland to the US and Australia.
"Why is there no mandatory reporting to a country's judicial authorities when crimes occur?" asked Hiranthi Wijemanne, a member of the committee. "Taking actions against perpetrators is part of justice."
Another member, Sara Oviedo, was equally forthright. "The Holy See has not established any mechanism to investigate those accused of perpetrating sexual abuse, nor to prosecute them.”
Committee members also asked the Vatican delegation what plans it had to collect data on clerical sex abuse, what oversight was in place for Catholic institutions such as schools and orphanages, and how it trained priests to work with minors.
Addressing the hearing, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican's representative in Geneva, showed a degree of remorse, saying that "such crimes can never be justified."
Archbishop Charles Scicluna, a prelate from Malta who for a decade was the most senior Vatican official in charge of dealing with sexual abuse cases, acknowledged that the church had made mistakes in the past.
"The Holy See gets it, let's not say too late.... There are certainly things that need to be done differently," he said. "It is not the policy of the Holy See to encourage cover-ups. Only the truth will help us move on to a situation where we can start being an example of best practice."
But Archbishop Tomasi reiterated an argument that the Vatican has long used – that the Holy See cannot be held responsible for the actions of clergy members in countries around the world and that its remit extends only to those living and working within the Vatican City State – the tiny sovereign territory surrounded by Rome, where fewer than 40 children reside.
Priests were "not functionaries of the Vatican but citizens of their countries and fall under the jurisdiction of their own countries," he said.
That argument was condemned as dishonest by campaigners for victims of sexual abuse, who said it was clear that the Vatican is the hub of the worldwide Catholic Church and issues directives and orders to dioceses around the globe.
“It is just so disingenuous for Church officials to claim that national governments are responsible for prosecuting clergy when those same Church officials have obstructed justice, helped predator priests move jurisdictions, destroyed evidence, and paid off victims and witnesses to remain silent,” says Barbara Blaine, a victim of abuse herself and the president of the US-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).
Despite the Vatican official's familiar arguments in Geneva, some campaigners saw a glimmer of hope in the public inquiry.
“It feels like a new chapter of justice and transparency has been opened,” says Megan Peterson, a member of SNAP and a victim of abuse as a child in Minnesota. “It’s a historic day for me.”
Miguel Hurtado, also from SNAP, said that in the past he and fellow campaigners had been called “Catholic haters who want to destroy the Church” by senior clergy. “We feel vindicated by the UN committee and we hope the Vatican will change its approach.”
The UN committee, which is composed of independent experts, will issue a report on Feb. 5. Its recommendations are not binding and the committee has no ability to sanction the Vatican, but it could still spur the Vatican into action, activists said.
“Whether the Vatican makes hard changes remains to be seen,” says Pam Spees, a human rights attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights, which provided a key report to the committee. “Nonetheless, today’s hearing is a milestone in calling for an end to the days of impunity."
“People are waiting and watching and there is now a standard by which they will judge the Vatican," Ms. Spees adds. "I think we are seeing a shift and monitoring by international bodies can only be a good thing.”
The degree to which the Vatican tackles the issue of sexually abusive clergy is being seen as a key test of the papacy of Pope Francis, who was elected last March after the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI. Pope Francis has announced almost weekly initiatives to reform the Holy See’s governance and clean up its finances, but has said little about the shame of predatory priests.
Last month he announced the setting up of a committee to address the issue, but victims’ groups described the initiative as “toothless,” “meaningless,” and “like offering a Band Aid to a cancer patient.”
On Thursday, as the UN session was underway in Switzerland, he told worshipers at morning Mass in the Vatican that abuse scandals had "cost us a lot of money, but [paying damages] is only right."
Bishops, priests, and lay people were responsible for this "shame of the Church," he said.
"Do we feel shame? There are so many scandals that I do not want to name them individually but everyone knows about them," the Argentinean pope said.