GENEVA -- Senior Vatican officials came under a barrage of critical questions by an independent United Nations panel Thursday over the Roman Catholic Church's response to allegations of child sexual abuse by members of the clergy in many countries.
It was the first time representatives of the Holy See had been asked in an international forum to provide testimony about the hundreds of cases that have been documented globally, including in the United States, Ireland, Australia, Mexico, and Spain.
The U.N. had jurisdiction to compel the Vatican to respond because the Vatican is one of 193 countries that have signed the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Holy See, which became a signatory in 1990, submitted an implementation report in 1994, but did not submit a progress report until 2012 -- following mounting pressure from advocacy groups in the face of sexual abuse cases.
Monsignor Silvano Tomasi, who headed the Vatican delegation, argued that the church isn't alone in harboring child abusers. "Abusers are found among members of the world's most respected professions, most regrettably, including members of the clergy and other church personnel," he said. But he also acknoweldged that abuse by priests was "particularly serious, since these persons are in positions of great trust."
"Such crimes can never be justified, " he said
But Tomasi provided no figures on how many cases of sexual abuse the church was aware of and how many times it had referred clergy to national authorities for prosecution -- two key questions that members of the Committee on the Rights of the Child posed.
In written questions, the UN experts also asked the Vatican to provide detailed information how it was addressing the sexual allegations, what measures were in place to ensure that no members of the clergy accused of sexual abuse were allowed to remain in contact with children, and what assistance has been given to victims.
The Vatican's replies said that the pope "has acted decisively: he has exhorted the members of the church to lead holy lives, amended norms regarding suitability for the priesthood; met and listened to victims..." The Vatican also "has developed guidelines: for local churches "encouraging them to take the necessary measures to protect children from this abuse and safeguard them from difficulty in the future."
But there were no specifics about the extent of the problem, Moreover, as a preemptive action, it said, "greater scrutiny must be exercised: in accepting candidates for the priesthood and religious life; b) in in exchanging information when those same candidates or priests..transfer from one seminary, diocese or religious institute to another."
The pane's vice-chair, Hiranthi Wijemanne urged the Vatican to be more forthcoming and provide details on all the cases of abuse that it knew of. Such openess would encourage victims who haven't come forward to speak up, she said.
"There could be many thousands," she said, "who are suffering in silence."
A group of lay Catholics from the United States in written testimony dated Jan. 11 cited a 2012 conference where Cardinal William Levada said 4,000 cases of child sexual abuse "had been adjudicated canonically by the Holy See" between 1950 and 2001. The group, Bishopaccountability.org in Waltham, Mass., said, however, it believed the Vatican's files "likely contain detailed records of more than 10,000 cases of sexual abuse of children."
Barbara Blaine, founder and President of SNAP, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, told reporters "church officials support, and cover up sexual pedophiles to this day."
But the Vatican representatives rejected that idea under questioning. Monsignor Charles Scicluna said excluding men who might harm children from the priesthood had become a key church goal. "It has become the mantra that every decision has to avoid any risk to minors....it has a moral responsibility "
Similarly, Tomasi said the Catholic Church "is keen to become an example of best practice in this important endeavour.."
The Catholic Church has more than 1.2 billion faithful worldwide, and runs more than 200,000 schools providing education to over 56 million children.
The expert panel's conclusions, and recommendations, to the Holy See are to be published on Feb. 5.