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Vatican to face UN grilling over child sex abuse claims

© afp

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2014-01-16

The Vatican will be grilled for the first time Thursday at a UN hearing in Geneva over its alleged protection of paedophile priests and its implementation of a UN convention that requires signatories to protect children from harm.

It is the first time the Holy See has had to defend its record at length or in court since it successfully argued that, as a sovereign state, it was immune from lawsuits. The Vatican has also maintained that bishops were responsible for sanctioning paedophile priests, and not the pope or the Vatican.

While the Holy See has had to answer questions about abuse at the separate UN Human Rights Council, this is the first UN hearing dedicated to the issue and the Vatican was compelled to submit to it as a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Vatican officials have privately said that they are hoping, at best, to do damage control at Thursday's session.

Victims groups and human rights organisations teamed up to press the UN committee to challenge the Holy See on its abuse record, providing written testimony from victims and evidence outlining the global scale of the problem. Their reports cite case studies in Mexico and Britain, grand jury investigations in the United States and government fact-finding inquiries from Canada to Ireland to Australia that detail how the Vatican's policies, its culture of secrecy and a persistent fear of scandal contributed to the problem.

The Holy See ratified the convention on children’s rights in 1990 and submitted a first implementation report in 1994. But it did not provide progress reports for nearly a decade, and only submitted one in 2012 after coming under criticism following mass revelations in 2010 of child sex abuse cases in Europe and beyond.

The UN committee, which is composed of independent experts, will issue its final observations and recommendations on February 5. The recommendations are not binding and the committee has no ability to sanction the Vatican for any shortcomings. Rather, the process is aimed at encouraging – and perhaps shaming – the treaty’s signatories into abiding by their international commitments.

The committee had also asked the Holy See to provide detailed information on all the cases of abuse that were brought to its attention – a number that the Vatican has acknowledged tops 4,000.

In its written response to the committee submitted last month, the Vatican declined to provide such information and ducked many of the committee's questions. It said it was only responsible for implementing the UN treaty where it exercises territorial control, on the 44 hectares (110 acres) of the Vatican City State in downtown Rome where only 31 children currently reside.

Rights groups disputed that interpretation, saying the UN committee itself had recognised that the convention isn't limited to state borders and noting that the committee had, in the past, urged states to implement its regulations beyond territorial frontiers.

Protecting priests

The submissions to the UN committee reference Vatican documents that show its officials knew about a notorious Mexican molester, decades before taking action. They cite correspondence from a Vatican cardinal praising a French bishop's decision to protect his abusive priest, and another Vatican directive to Irish bishops not to report abusers to police as required. The submissions even quote the former Vatican No. 2 as saying bishops should not be expected to turn in their priests.

“For too many years, survivors were the only ones speaking out about this and bearing the brunt of a lot of criticism,” said Pam Spees, an attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, which provided a key report to the committee. “And so this is a very important moment for many, many people who are here in Geneva and around the world who will be watching as the Holy See is called for the first time ever to actually answer questions.”

The Vatican spokesman, the Reverend Federico Lombardi, said Wednesday that the Holy See ratified the treaty because of its longstanding commitment to caring for children in the fields of education, healthcare, refugee services and other outreach to families in need.

He said that while abuses had occurred at the hands of churchmen, it was important to distinguish between where the Holy See bore responsibility and where local authorities should have intervened.

“The Holy See is not an organisation in which all the priests or Catholics of the world are employees. It's a big religious community,” he told The Associated Press. “Every member of this community has responsibilities as citizens of the country where he or she lives and with the authorities of that country.”

The Vatican will be represented by its most authoritative official on the issue, Monsignor Charles Scicluna, who for a decade has been the Holy See's chief sex-crimes prosecutor. He is credited with having overhauled the Vatican's procedures to prosecute paedophiles in-house and made it easier to defrock them when judged guilty.

But despite that progress, the Vatican to date has refused to instruct its bishops to report suspected cases of abuse to police, saying they need only do so when required to by local laws.

(FRANCE 24 with AP)

Date created : 2014-01-16

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