GENEVA (AP) — In its second grilling at the United Nations this year, the Vatican on Monday sought to limit its responsibility for the global priest sex abuse scandal by undercutting arguments it has violated an international treaty against torture and inhuman treatment.
The Vatican delegation's appearance in Geneva is the first time that the committee that oversees the U.N. Convention Against Torture, which the Vatican ratified in 2002, has hauled the Holy See before its members.
Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican's U.N. ambassador in Geneva, lost no time asserting that its responsibility for enforcing the U.N. treaty against torture only applies within the confines of the tiny Vatican City, which has fewer than 1,000 inhabitants in an area less than half a square-kilometer in size, making it the smallest country in the world.
"The Holy See intends to focus exclusively on Vatican City state," he told the committee. "State authorities are obligated to protect and when necessary to prosecute persons under their jurisdiction."
Committee member Felice Gaer's first question was to ask why the Vatican's first report to the committee — the subject of the hearing this week — came nine years late. Gaer, an American human rights expert, then took aim at the church's "alleged distinction" in its treaty responsibilities between Vatican City and the Holy See.
The differentiation, she said, "would create important gaps in the coverage" of the treaty and is a "troubling" bit of legalese.
"We call for all parties to adhere to the strict meaning of the convention," Gaer told the Vatican delegation led by Tomasi.
The grilling ended after just two hours Monday to allow the Vatican delegation to prepare responses when the hearing resumes Tuesday afternoon. Tomasi acknowledged there remain differences over "the line of legal and moral responsibility" for implementing the treaty.
He said there has been a "stabilization, even a decline in case of pedophilia" in the church, which indicates that the measures taken by the Holy See and local churches are "bringing about a positive result."
"The church has to do its own cleaning of the house. It has been doing it for the last 10 years," he said.
A U.N. committee that monitors a key treaty on children's rights blasted the Holy See in January, accusing it of systematically placing its own interests over those of victims by enabling priests to rape and molest tens of thousands of children through its own policies and code of silence. And that committee rejected a similar argument the Vatican made trying to limit its responsibility.
If a U.N. committee finds the abuse amounts to torture and inhuman treatment, that could open the floodgates to abuse lawsuits dating back decades because there are no statute of limitations on torture cases, said Katherine Gallagher, a human rights attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights, a nonprofit legal group based in New York. The group submitted reports on behalf of victims to both committees urging closer U.N. scrutiny of the church record on child abuse.
Gallagher said that rape legally can constitute a form of torture because of the elements of intimidation, coercion, and exploitation of power, and that it is a "disingenuous argument" for the Vatican to assert its only responsibility for the anti-torture treaty lies within Vatican City.
When they signed the treaty, Vatican officials said they were only doing so on behalf of Vatican City not the Holy See, which is the governing structure of the universal church. The Vatican's spokesman, Rev. Federico Lombardi, told Vatican Radio on Friday the church hopes the U.N. committee reviewing the anti-torture treaty will avoid being "reduced to tools of ideological pressure rather than a necessary stimulus towards the desired progress in promoting respect for human rights."
But the stakes couldn't be higher, said Barbara Blaine, president of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, known as SNAP. She said hundreds of children are still being abused today despite the Vatican's recent "lofty words" that don't amount to preventive action.
SNAP last year separately asked the International Criminal Court to investigate former Pope Benedict XVI and Vatican cardinals for possible crimes against humanity over clergy abuse. The court, based in The Hague, rejected the request.
"So much is at stake —the safety of children all across the globe," she told reporters Friday at the U.N. in Geneva. "We don't know what will stop the Vatican officials. All we can do is to keep speaking out."
Pope Francis has said he takes personal responsibility for the "evil" of clergy sex abuse, and he has sought forgiveness from victims and said the church must be even bolder in efforts to protect children. On Saturday, members of the Pope's sexual abuse advisory board said they will develop "clear and effective" protocols to hold bishops and other church authorities accountable if they fail to report suspected abuse or protect children from pedophile priests.
Francis announced the creation of the commission last December and named its members in March after coming under initial criticism for having ignored the sex abuse issue.
The U.N. committee, which is composed of independent experts, not other U.N. member states, will issue its final observations and recommendations May 23.