The Catholic Church wants to be "an example of best practice" in the prevention of child abuse and the defence of childhood, a Vatican official told a UN committee in an unprecedented encounter in Geneva today.
Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican’s envoy to the UN, made the statement in response to questions put to him and a delegation of four others, including Bishop Charles Scicluna, the Vatican’s former chief prosecutor of sexual abuse.
It was the first time that the Vatican has been confronted publicly about the Holy See’s record on tackling child sex abuse by clergy.
The hearing, which marks the conclusion of the UN’s investigation into the Holy See’s compliance with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which it is a signatory, took place in Geneva.
The UN committee on Protection on Rights of the Child voiced concern over the lack of transparency and accountability in the way the Holy See and the Catholic Church deal with the sex abuse of minors by the clergy.
One asked, "What will it take for the Holy See to have serious sanctions for lack of compliance with civil authorities?"
Challenged over the Church’s description of abuse as a “crime against morals” rather than a “crime against children”, Bishop Scicluna admitted that Church policy needed to change.
He said: "The Holy See gets it that there are things that need to be done differently," adding "It is not the policy of the Holy See to encourage cover-ups.”
The delegation was also asked how it trained priests to work with children; what oversight there was in place at Catholic institutions; and whether it planned to collect data on abuse.
Archbishop Tomasi said that priests fell under the jurisdictions of their own countries and not the Vatican. He said that child sexual abuse had been discovered in many professions and was not particular to the Church.
In the second session of the day, several committee members said they were encouraged by what they had heard from the Holy See delegates regarding its policies and efforts to deal with sex abuse, but they also said they believed the Church had to "urgently do more" in way of concrete actions and setting down binding norms.
One member urged the Holy See to "collect data from local Churches" on how they have followed up with abuse cases and what the outcomes have been, especially in dealing with victims.
"Could you consider a Church compensation scheme for the victims?" the committee's chairperson asked. She was specifically referring to States where the civil authorities do not allow or demand compensation. "These are, after all, people who did what they did as representatives of the Church," she said.
Bishop Scicluna, who before becoming auxiliary bishop in Malta last year had worked for more than a decade as the CDF official in charge of prosecuting abuse cases, largely stressed the Church's efforts at educating its personnel and also children in knowing how to protect themselves.
"I'm with you all the way that all these nice words will mean nothing if there is not more transparency and accountability," he said. He said the efforts of the Holy See and the Church are a "constant work in progress".
The Vatican has been accused of failing to respond properly to abuse allegations, and earlier refused to provide files on abuse to the UN’s Committee on the Rights of the Child.
"The Holy See does not exercise effective control over the local activities of Catholic institutions around the world," the response last month read, suggesting the Church's central administration could only be held accountable for events within the Vatican City State.
Last month Pope Francis announced a new Vatican Committee would be set up to help tackle abuse. Details of its composition have yet to be made public.
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