GENEVA — The Holy See gave its first detailed assessment of the Church's handling of clerical sex-abuse cases today to an international panel at the United Nations, during which officials stressed the Church’s commitment to protecting and upholding the inviolable dignity of every child.

Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Holy See’s permanent observer to the United Nations in Geneva, told the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child “there is no excuse” for the abuse of minors. He added that, after having worked closely with local Churches in implementing a series of measures, the Holy See “is keen to become an example of best practice” in eliminating such cases.

He also said the Holy See “looks forward to welcoming any suggestions” from the committee on how to promote and encourage respect of the rights of the child and ensure efficient implementation of the provisions of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child and its protocols.

The Vatican diplomat made the comments as he presented the Holy See’s periodic report to the Committee on the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which the Holy See became a signatory in 1990. He was also joined by the former Vatican promoter of justice, Bishop Charles Scicluna, who was responsible for overseeing the handling of abuse cases until his appointment as auxiliary bishop of Malta last year.

The Holy See was just one of several states questioned today on their record of protecting children from sexual abuse and other violence, the others being Russia, Germany, Portugal, Congo and Yemen.

“The protection of children remains a major concern for contemporary society and for the Holy See,” Archbishop Tomasi said, adding that abusers are found among members of the “world’s most respected professions, most regrettably, including members of the clergy and other Church personnel.”

He said the Holy See, in addition to implementing procedures aimed at eliminating such abuse, is also “committed to listen carefully to victims” and to address the “impact such situations have on survivors of abuse and on their families.”

He added that the “vast majority” of Church personnel and institutions continue to educate and care for children, adding that “egregious crimes” of abuse “have rightly been adjudicated and punished by the competent civil authorities in the respective countries.”


Local Churches’ Jurisdiction

But Archbishop Tomasi made the distinction that priests were “not functionaries of the Vatican, but citizens of their countries, and fall under the jurisdiction of their own countries.” Local Churches, taking into account the domestic laws in their respective countries, have developed guidelines and monitored their implementation with the aim of “preventing any additional abuse and dealing promptly with it,” he said.

He also stressed that the Vatican has adopted strong anti-abuse measures for personnel under its direct supervision, as shown by its willingness to hold a Vatican trial for a Polish nuncio accused of sexual abuse.

For his part, Bishop Scicluna answered follow-up questions by insisting it was “not the policy of the Holy See to encourage cover-ups.” But, he added, “the Holy See gets it that there are things that need to be done differently.”

Archbishop Tomasi pointed out that on the international level the Holy See has taken “concrete action” to ratify and accede to a number of treaties and protocols aimed at protecting children from abuse and conflict. “The Holy See then promotes and encourages these international instruments,” he said.

The permanent observer then explained the contents of the Holy See’s periodic report, which included the Holy See’s “international contributions” to advancing and promoting basic principles on a range of issues pertaining to the welfare of children.

“In the end, there is no excuse for any form of violence or exploitation of children,” Archbishop Tomasi said. “Such crimes can never be justified, whether committed in the home, in schools, in community and sports programs or in religious organizations and structures.

“This is the long-standing policy of the Holy See. For this reason, the Holy See and local Church structures in all parts of the world are committed to holding inviolable the dignity and entire person of every child — body, mind and spirit.”

He closed by quoting Benedict XVI’s words to the bishops of Ireland in 2006, in which he said such abuse is “all the more tragic when the abuser is a cleric.” He also pointed out the seriousness with which Pope Francis is dealing with the issue, most notably creating a new commission for the protection of minors in order to develop “safe-environment programs for children” and to improve “pastoral care for victims of abuse around the world.”


‘Understandable’ Attention

Speaking afterwards to Vatican Radio, Archbishop Tomasi said the attention that is given to the Holy See is “understandable,” but he added it is one of a number of members being examined, and the Holy See is “convinced that some very good results are coming out of this dialogue with the experts.”

Bishop Scicluna later told Vatican Radio the hearing "was grueling, in the sense it was a very long session, and it was very engaging." But he added that the rapporteur had "important concerns to express, and we had a very important and fruitful interactive dialogue."

Prior to today’s meeting, there was reportedly anger that the Holy See would not share the results of its own internal inquiry into sex abuse. The Vatican responded by saying it is “not the practice of the Holy See to disclose information on the religious discipline of members of the clergy or religious, according to canon law,” in order to “protect the witnesses, the accused and the integrity of the Church process.” Bishop Scicluna told Vatican Radio that "it was not within the remit of the committee to ask for individual cases."

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi issued an explanatory note Jan. 16 in which he reiterated the deep sadness of the Holy See in relation to sexual abuse, the “unspeakable suffering” it has caused and the Church’s commitment to safeguarding the welfare of the child. But he said the scandals have resulted in a series of initiatives that have been “extremely helpful, also outside the Church community.” 

Recalling that the Holy See has been an “early and wholehearted” supporter of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which it sees as consistent with Church teaching, he said the Holy See is, therefore, an “active promoter” in caring for the good of children. And he added that “the inspiring guidance and leadership” of Pope Francis “gives a new and evident energy to this commitment.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.