GENEVA: The Vatican came under blistering criticism from a U.N. committee Thursday for its handling of the global priest sex abuse scandal, facing its most intense public grilling ever over allegations that it protected pedophile priests at the expense of victims.
Monsignor Charles Scicluna, the Vatican's former sex crimes prosecutor, acknowledged that the Holy See had been slow to face the crisis but said that it was now committed to doing so. He encouraged prosecutors to take action against anyone who obstructs justice - a suggestion that bishops who moved priests from diocese to diocese should be held accountable.
"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."
He was responding to a grilling by the U.N. committee over the Holy See's failure to abide by terms of a treaty that calls for signatories to take all appropriate measures to keep children from harm. Critics allege the church enabled the rape of thousands of children by protecting pedophile priests to defend its reputation.
The committee's main human rights investigator, Sara Oviedo, was particularly tough, pressing the Vatican on the frequent ways abusive priests were transferred rather than turned in to police. Given the church's "zero tolerance" policy, she asked, why were there "efforts to cover up and obscure these types of cases."
Another committee member, Maria Rita Parsi, an Italian psychologist and psychotherapist, pressed further: "If these events continue to be hidden and covered up, to what extent will children be affected?"
The Holy See ratified the convention in 1990 and submitted a first implementation report in 1994. But it didn't provide progress reports for nearly two decades. It only submitted one in 2012 after coming under criticism following the 2010 explosion of child sex abuse cases in Europe and beyond.
Victims groups and human rights organizations teamed up to press the U.N. 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 U.S., and government fact-finding inquiries from Canada to Ireland to Australia that detail how the Vatican's policies, its culture of secrecy and fear of scandal contributed to the problem.
The Holy See has long insisted that it wasn't responsible for the crimes of priests committed around the world, saying priests aren't employees of the Vatican but are rather citizens of countries where they reside and subject to local law enforcement. It has maintained that bishops were responsible for the priests in their care, not the pope.
But victims groups and human rights organizations provided the U.N. committee with the Vatican's own documentation showing how it discouraged bishops from reporting abusers to police.
Committee member Jorge Cardona Llorens, a Spanish international law professor, demanded to know how the Vatican would create "specific criteria" for putting children's interests first, because there weren't any yet in place.
Scicluna said the Holy See wanted to be a model for how to protect children and care for victims.
"I think the international community looks up to the Holy See for such guidance. But it's not only words, it has to be commitment on the ground."
He added: "The states who are cognizant of obstruction of justice need to take action against citizens of their countries who obstruct justice," Scicluna said. Scicluna, a Maltese bishop, has previous said bishops who failed to do the right thing with pedophile priests must be held accountable.
Victims groups and human rights organizations were closely monitoring the hearing, too.
"I think it's time for the church to stop this secrecy," Teodoro Pulvirenti, who said he was abused by a priest, told The Associated Press in New York. "I believe the church puts too much its reputation before the victims and you know the pain of this abuse that we carry. That's why I was so excited when I heard about this final meeting between the Vatican representatives and the U.N."