The Vatican has come under sharp criticism from a UN committee for its handling of child sex-abuse cases among Roman Catholic clergy.
The scandal tarnished the reputation of the church and drawn accusations that it deliberately hid the rapes of thousands of children by protecting paedophile priests.
The Vatican, now facing its most intense public grilling over the allegations, acknowledged at Thursday’s hearing in the Swiss city of Geneva that it had been slow to act, but insisted that it was now committed to facing the crisis.
“The Holy See gets it,” Monsignor Charles Scicluna, Vatican’s former sex-crimes prosecutor, told the committee.
“Let’s not say ‘too late’ or not. But there are certain things that need to be done differently.”
The Holy See is recognised by international law as a sovereign entity headed by the pope.
Scicluna also encouraged prosecutors to take action against anyone who obstructs justice – a suggestion that bishops, who moved priests from diocese to diocese so they could avoid prosecution, should be held accountable.
Scicluna’s comments came in response to questioning by the committee over the Holy See’s failure to abide by terms of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, a treaty that calls for signatories to take all appropriate measures to keep children from harm.
Sara Oviedo, the committee’s main human rights investigator, was particularly tough, pressing the Vatican on the ways abusive priests were frequently transferred rather than turned over to police.
Given the church’s “zero tolerance” policy, she asked, why were there “efforts to cover up and obscure these types of cases?”
Despite the emphatic questions, some victims’ advocacy groups told Al Jazeera there was “no force behind this committee.”
“They’ll ask them some questions and they’ll expose them and they can embarrass them, but they can’t really force them to do anything,” David Lorenz of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) said.
“But they certainly can expose the truth, and I think that when people start to see that the Vatican has hidden all of these charges, there’s going to be some backlash.”
The Holy See ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990 and submitted its first implementation report in 1994, but then didn’t provide progress reports for nearly two decades.
It submitted one in 2012 only after coming under criticism following the 2010 explosion of child sex-abuse cases in Europe and beyond.
Holy See challenged
Victims’ groups and human rights organisations teamed up to press the UN committee to challenge the Holy See on its abuse record.
The Holy See has long insisted that it was not responsible for the crimes of priests committed around the world, saying priests are not 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 organisations provided the UN committee with the Vatican’s own documentation showing how it discouraged bishops from reporting abusers to police.
Thursday’s hearing is seen by some as a test of Pope Francis, who has enjoyed widespread popularity and made big promises, and of whether he can make amends on the issue of sexual abuse and allegations of cover-up.
Francis has called for openness and transparency on the issue of priest sex abuse.
In December, he established a committee to advise him on the subject.
The Vatican had said the committee would help protect children from paedophiles and better screen would-be priests, but some advocate groups dismissed it at the time as a publicity stunt.