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Vatican Under Unprecedented Scrutiny Over Child Abuse

02/02/2014 19:29 GMT | Updated 02/04/2014 10:59 BST

With nearly a dozen television crews in attendance, the Vatican representatives at their cross-examination by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child on 16 January (2014) in Geneva were under fierce scrutiny. The main topic was clerical child abuse, the first time they have ever had to answer questions in detail on this at the UN.

Msgrs Tomasi, head of the UN mission and Scicluna, until recently the Vatican's chief prosecutor of clerical sexual abuse lawyer, a post he held for ten years, gave answers which were so misleading, evasive and complacent, they made the victims of clerical abuse who were present gasp.

Full marks, though, to the Committee members for pressing their points before the world's press. This day-long process started with a defensive opening address by Msgr Tomasi. He repeated the Vatican's relatively recent self-serving ruse that the so-called Holy See (HS), the diplomatic nom de plume of the Vatican and Roman Catholic Church, has no responsibility whatsoever under the Convention for the Rights of the Child for the activities of the Catholic Church outside the confines of the tiny Vatican City State.

In July 2013, the Committee had posed detailed questions (see especially questions 8 and 11) about worldwide abuse as part of its list of issues for the Vatican to respond to. The Holy See would only respond in respect of activities in the Vatican where just 33 children reside.

The Committee was given the run around every time they asked for the release of the database of accusations against clerics over child abuse that the Vatican decrees that the Church worldwide must send to them for them to handle.

Msgr Tomasi's initial brush off was that he was "not in a position to give you an answer now", without any indication of whether he ever would be. In clear exasperation at being repeatedly pressed, he played down the likelihood of the Vatican being able to conform to the Committee's demand because it would be a "huge undertaking", seemingly oblivious to the implication that the number of clerics involved was massive, and - implausibly - that there was no database in existence.

The next day, however, the press agency Associated Press published information from a Vatican yearbook detailing statistics about hundreds of clerics being defrocked in recent years. Predictably, the Vatican claimed the AP story misrepresented the statistics, only for Msgr Scicluna to be forced later in the day into a humiliating retraction:

AP had been right all along, and in so doing he in effect confirmed the database already existed. Few if any of the hundreds of the defrocked clerics on it will have been reported to the civil authorities or been through the courts and received criminal records. Experience suggests that there will be no information given about any of their nefarious activities to new employers. So, rather than being jailed, most if not all will, thanks to the Vatican or the Church be released into the community unsupervised with unfettered access to children.

The Committee Chair was keen to establish whether compensation paid was contingent on victims' silence.

On openness, Msgr Scicluna argued that the vast majority of cases in the USA had been under judicial process and were therefore on the public record. Yet just before the hearing, news had emerged of a lawyer only getting about half of around 60 case papers relating to Chicago diocese released after working on it for around seven years.

Pressing Msgr Scicluna further on openness, she asked him about congratulations sent by the Vatican to a French Bishop, Pican, for flouting French law by refusing to disclose clerics' abuse to civil authorities. These congratulations were widely circulated to encourage others to act similarly.

This caused Msgr Scicluna's mask to slip. His memorable response - the Holy See now "gets it" on secrecy, "let's not say whether too late" - was reported worldwide. The Pican example was cited in the NSS's extensive evidence submitted to the Committee, which included giving verbal evidence in the private pre-sessional hearing in June 2014.

Another of his answers on compensation was chilling: "Compensation is about local law" - in other words the instructions from the very top of the organisation are not to pay any more than they are forced to (and of course their lawyers press for the minimum possible).

Remarks such as this could not be in greater contrast to his complacent stream of platitudes emphasising at length the importance of upholding the dignity of the child, and of the primacy of the child's best interests.

There are valid concerns, as the NSS had also pointed out, that canon law procedures impede civil and criminal law proceedings because of the oaths of secrecy that are taken. Committee members pressed the Vatican, but without result, for them to recommend amending canon law to ensure that the Convention takes precedence over canon law.

Msgr Scicluna responded to the question "What percentage of offenders have been through domestic law? And how effective is this?" with the evasive answer "Follow up is in hands of local churches." Nothing to do with us, guv.

Similarly fruitless were the numerous attempts to have the Vatican issue instructions that credible accusations of clerical child abuse - more accurately rape and other violence against minors - should be reported to civil authorities. I lost count of the number of shamelessly evasive answers falling short of this demand, a condition precedent for reducing future abuse and bringing perpetrators to justice.

The Committee also asked for an undertaking to cooperate with future national committees of enquiry, which the Irish nuncio had so blatantly refused to do during the Irish investigations, citing his diplomatic status. It is inconceivable that this could have occurred without the direct involvement of the (previous) Pope who he represented.

Perhaps the biggest question that this examination raises is the extent to which Francis wishes to - or indeed is able to - start coming clean over child abuse by requiring reporting to secular authorities, and cooperating with them by providing information which the Vatican has hitherto kept secret and instructed others to do likewise.

Msgr Silvano told The Tablet in an interview shortly after the examination that the huge media coverage means that the Holy See is looked upon as a point of reference in a way;that the publicity is a kind of "backhanded compliment". But surely the media were there because of the unprecedented coverage of child abuse on a hitherto unknown scale? Speaking to the victims there and watching them giving their accounts to journalists was harrowing indeed.

The Chair was clearly determined to evince a response from Msgr Tomasi about whether the disgraced Dominican Republic nuncio recalled to the Vatican, effectively as a fugitive from Dominican and Polish justice; will he be handed over to other states. "We will have to see" was the arrogant and defiant response.

The afternoon session had been largely taken up by answers from the two spokespersons of the questions that had been logged in the morning. They had had a two hour lunch break in which to prepare their answers, but observers were left wondering whether they had taken any notes at all. Repeated promptings rarely got better than a stonewalling or ludicrously vague answer, but generally none at all. We were left with the distinct impression that their strategy was to concede as little as possible and to fill up the time until the session had to end, seeking to appear as good-humoured as possible.

They also tried to give the impression that the Holy See was turning over a new leaf, for example with the promised commission of enquiry. When pressed for the third time on one question which he kept evading, Msgr Silvano half joked that this was a new old question, i.e. he was being pressed again on a question he had failed to even address.

It was particularly telling that charges made by several members of the Committee that the Holy See had contravened several articles of the Convention were completely ignored.

Despite this, Rapporteur Oviedo sought to end on a courteous and encouraging note, referring to the Committee's "great expectations" and to a "new era and new dawn for the Holy See". She concluded that the dialogue had been positive and that they had said "yes" several times and that the Committee would hold them to this.

Victims' groups there I spoke to were much less sanguine however. I share their cynicism, but hope to be proved wrong.

Yet in spite of the evasiveness, I hope this session will be a wake up call to the Vatican that it cannot remain entirely unaccountable to the international community. I hope that this examination will encourage international bodies to challenge the Vatican much more in the future.

Maybe the Pope has not been in control for long enough, but the evasive written replies in the summer were submitted on his watch, as has been the Dominican Republic nuncio debâcle. The Vatican doesn't even have any jails, and it's doubtful that the recent law with which the nuncio is expected to be charged is retrospectively valid.

Rumours abound of a major initiative in this area by the Pope, but he will have to do better than just commissions of enquiry behind closed doors for any public confidence to be restored. The only way is opening the files, without limitation, to secular justice authorities.