Today was a first in some ways – but not in as many as some would have hoped. It was the first time the Vatican has publicly had to account for its handling of waves of allegations of abuse by priests. Campaigners such as Barbara Blaine the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests hailed it as a huge milestone.
But as Bishop Charles Scicluna, for ten years the Vatican official in charge of prosecuting abuse cases, and Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican’s man in Geneva, appeared before the UN committee on Protection on Rights of the Child, some lines were all too familiar.
Archbishop Tomasi said that the Vatican could not be held responsible for the actions of priests in the way that an employer is, because priests aren’t employees as such; thus Vatican City State can’t be held to account for what’s done outside its borders.
There are two problems with this argument – firstly, that the Vatican authorities find it within their powers to discipline priests who question Catholic doctrine on homosexuality or attend the “ordination” services of women. So it then looks baffling that they can’t come down hard on bishops who ignored abuse allegations or covered them up.
Secondly, and most importantly, it suggests that certain men in the Vatican still don’t get it. For many onlookers, especially those who are heartbroken by the abuse crisis, today wasn’t about establishing on whose patch these crimes occurred; it was about searching for evidence of a change of heart, a metanoia: had the church authorities shifted from protecting the institution to protecting their most vulnerable? And had the church authorities finally linked their own inaction, or that of their confreres and predecessors, to the tragedy of the damage suffered by victims?
Scicluna told the committee the efforts of the Holy See and the Church are a "constant work in progress".
It’s great that the Vatican’s account of itself will now be on record, and that Bishop Scicluna’s efforts to improve bishops’ accountability are appreciated.
Those seeking reform of banking practices in the City have cited culture change as key, and they say this has to come from the top of the institutions in which the various misdemeanours took place. Pope Francis, so wonderfully clear on poverty and mercy, has said hardly anything about this issue.
Last month Pope Francis announced a new Vatican Committee would be set up to help tackle abuse but details of its composition have yet to be made public.
The issue won’t go away.
Tomasi told the panel the Church wants to be "an example of best practice" in child protection. This is surely the only way to bring good out of this great scandal but it a lot has yet to be done.
I’m giving the last word to Scicluna: "I'm with you all the way that all these nice words will mean nothing if there is not more transparency and accountability."