The Holy See was grilled by the U.N. committee on torture today and, as expected, it came in for some harsh and extrinsic criticism for the Church's handling of clerical sex abuse cases. 

In the two-hour hearing in Geneva, the Committee Against Torture launched a barrage of questions to the Vatican delegation, asking about past policy decisions, the juridical distinction between the Holy See and Vatican City, and information on specific cases, according to Reuters. 

But many of the questions went beyond the boundaries of the U.N. Convention against Torture. The Holy See also signed up to the Convention on grounds that it would apply only to the territory of Vatican City, not the wider Church.

Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Holy See's permanent observer to the U.N. in Geneva, said while the Holy See can be a moral force, the "agent of justice" for crimes committed by Catholics was the local state where the crime was committed. "It should be stressed, particularly in light of much confusion, that the Holy See has no jurisdiction ... over every member of the Catholic Church," he said in opening remarks.

But as this committee is heavily influenced by NGOs ideologically opposed to the Church's teaching, this important caveat was brushed aside by some members of the panel. The committee's chief rapporteur, Felice Gaer of the United States, told the Vatican delegation that its position "seems to reflect an intention for a significant portion of the actions and omissions of Holy See officials be excluded from consideration by this committee, and this troubles us." 

Gaer and another panel member presented dozens of questions from ideologically opposed NGOs, many if not all of them falling outside the scope of the Convention. You can get an idea of the kind of questions they asked by looking at 'shadow reports' here (click on CAT - Convention against Torture and Other... and then 'Reporting Cycle'). Particularly antagonistic NGOs include the Center for Reproductive Rights and the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. Three NGOs have submitted shadow reports defending the Church. A particularly strong one has been written by Catholic Voices here, while the Atlanta-based Solidarity Center for Law and Justice effectively warns the CAT to steer clear of criticising the Holy See.

Archbishop Tomasi gave the following comments to Vatican Radio this afternoon, further explaining the Holy See's position:

“The delegation of the Holy See presented its point of view and emphasized first of all that the Convention has been signed and ratified by the Holy See on behalf - and only on behalf - of the Vatican City State. In this way, the implementation of the Convention under the responsibility of the Holy See, applies to the territory of Vatican City State. 

Obviously, some people don’t agree with this statement because they feel that the authority of the Holy See extends to the institutions and the persons of the Catholic Church at large. But from a juridical point of view, this is not accurate and there is an important distinction to be kept in mind between a juridical responsibility and a moral, spiritual, pastoral responsibility. 

Then, the members of the Committee raised a series of questions that deal with specific cases that happened in different countries of the world for which they would like to have explanations and accurate information. Mostly, (these are) cases of sexual abuse of minors on the part of personnel working for the Church and the assumption it seems at work in this situation (is) that the Holy See is directly responsible for the behavior of every priest and of every employee of any Church institution in the world which of course is not the case. 

And then, I must underline the fact that the Chairman of the Committee has tried to be very fair, pointing out the good actions and measures - legal and pastoral I would say - undertaken by the Church in the last few years. And at the same time, he also posed some questions that need to be answered. 

At the moment we are reflecting and preparing the conclusions to be presented tomorrow, giving as much information as we can so that the objective of this exercise, the protection of people from abusive and humiliating behavior, may be realized. So from this point of view, the Holy See is happy to collaborate with the Committee but at the same time, it will probably not accept that the Committee goes beyond its boundaries into areas that belong to other committees like the Committee of the Convention of the Rights of the Child and at the same time, maintain a civilized climate of dialogue with every member of this Committee.”

For more background on the Committee hearings, whose final report will be published on May 23, see my earlier article here.