January 16

Vatican comes under sharp criticism for sex abuse

A representative of the Holy See responds to uncomfortable questions before a packed audience at U.N. headquarters in Geneva.

By John Heilprin And Nicole Winfield
The Associated Press

(Continued from page 1)

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Charles Scicluna, former vatican chief prosecutor of clerical sexual abuse, told a United Nations human-right panel Thursday, “The Holy See gets it. Let’s not say too late or not. But there are certain things that need to be done differently.”

The Associated Press

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‘THE HOLY SEE GETS IT’

While insisting on that legal separation, the Vatican did respond to questions about cases even where it had no jurisdiction or involvement, and on many occasions welcomed recommendations on ways to make children safer.

“The Holy See gets it,” Scicluna told the committee. “Let’s not say too late or not. But there are certain things that need to be done differently.”

Scicluna has been credited even by victims with helping bring the Vatican around over the past decade, overhauling its internal norms to make it easier to defrock abusers and calling for greater accountability by bishops who allowed priests to roam free.

And while the Vatican in 2010 for the first time publicly encouraged bishops to cooperate with police investigating abusers, it came with a hedge: only where local reporting laws require it.

As a result, victims groups said they were not impressed by the Vatican’s performance or pledges, though they said they appreciated the seriousness with which the committee members grilled the delegation.

“I think it is a step in the process,” said Ton Leerschool, co-founder of Survivors Voice Europe. “It’s already quite historic that this happened. That there would not be real results, I expected that from this meeting.”

PANEL WILL MAKE RECOMMENDATIONS

The U.N. committee is made up of independent experts – not other U.N. member states – and it will deliver final observations and nonbinding recommendations on Feb. 5. The committee has no ability to sanction the Vatican for any shortcomings, but the process is aimed at encouraging, and sometimes shaming, treaty signatories into honoring their international commitments.

Perhaps by coincidence, Pope Francis himself spoke of the shame the church felt for its scandals during his morning homily in the chapel of the Vatican hotel where he lives. Without citing sexual abuse by name, he said scandals happen in the church when its people lose their relationship to God.

“So many scandals that I do not want to mention individually, but all of us know ... We know where they are!” he said on a day that he met privately with American Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, who according to court documents worked behind the scenes to shield molesting priests.

Groups representing victims of clerical abuse, who have been active in civil litigation against the church in the U.S. and beyond, gave the U.N. committee hundreds of pages of documents of victim testimony, summaries of grand jury investigations and government fact-finding inquiries from Canada to Ireland to Australia.

Their points of view largely informed the questioning, but the committee members themselves seemed to have a firm grasp of the problem and the intricacies of canon law and church procedures for handling cases in-house.

Given the church’s “zero tolerance policy” for abuse, why were there “efforts to cover up and obscure these types of cases?” asked Sara de Jesus Oviedo Fierro, the committee’s main investigator who was particularly tough in grilling the Vatican delegation.

Mezmur, the Ethiopian, was equally tough when he rattled off some of the initiatives already taken by the Vatican and even Pope Francis, including his recent instruction to the Vatican office responsible for abuse cases to act decisively.

“What will it take from the Holy See for instance to have a guideline with a threat of serious sanction for noncompliance on cooperating with civil authorities on child abuse cases?” Mezmur asked. “What does ‘to act decisively’ actually mean?”

Committee members repeatedly asked the Holy See to create a data collection system to track abuse cases and how victims are provided for. Tomasi said the Vatican would consider it.

They asked what Francis intends to do with a new commission to find best practices to protect children. Tomasi said the commission’s makeup wasn’t yet published.

And the committee asked whether the Vatican would turn over to Dominican authorities its own ambassador to the country who was accused of sexually abusing teenage boys. Tomasi said the ambassador, who was recalled in secrecy in August, was on trial in Vatican tribunals.

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