VATICAN CITY -- The Vatican is gearing up for a bruising showdown over the global priest sex abuse scandal, forced for the first time to defend itself at length and in public against allegations it enabled the rape of thousands of children by protecting pedophile priests and its own reputation at the expense of victims.
The Holy See on Thursday will be grilled by a UN committee in Geneva on its implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Among other things, the treaty calls for signatories to take all appropriate measures to protect children from harm and to put children's interests above all else.
The Holy See ratified the convention in 1990 and submitted a first implementation report in 1994. But it didn't provide progress reports for nearly a decade, and only submitted one in 2012 after coming under criticism following the 2010 explosion of child sex abuse cases in Europe and beyond.
Victims groups and human rights organizations teamed up to press the UN committee to challenge the Holy See on its abuse record, providing written testimony from victims and evidence outlining the global scale of the problem. Their reports cite case studies in Mexico and Britain, grand jury investigations in the U.S., and government fact-finding inquiries from Canada to Ireland to Australia that detail how the Vatican's policies, its culture of secrecy and fear of scandal contributed to the problem.
Their submissions reference Vatican documents that show its officials knew about a notorious Mexican molester decades before taking action. They cite correspondence from a Vatican cardinal praising a French bishop's decision to protect his abusive priest, and another Vatican directive to Irish bishops to strike any mandatory reporting of abusers to police from their policies. The submissions even quote the former Vatican No. 2 as saying bishops shouldn't be expected to turn their priests in.
"For too many years, survivors were the only ones speaking out about this and bearing the brunt of a lot of criticism," said Pam Spees, an attorney at the Center for constitutional Rights, which provided a key report to the committee. "And so this is a very important moment for many, many people who are here in Geneva and around the world who will be watching as the Holy See is called for the first time ever to actually answer questions."
Indeed, to date the Holy See has never had to defend its record at length or in court since it has successfully argued that it is immune from lawsuits as a sovereign state and that, regardless, bishops were responsible for pedophile priests, not the pope or his policies. While the Holy See has had to answer some questions about abuse at the separate UN Human Rights Council, this is the first UN hearing dedicated to the issue and the Vatican was compelled to submit to it as a signatory to the convention. Officials have privately said they are hoping at best to do damage control at Thursday's session.
The UN committee, which is composed of independent experts, not other UN member states, will issue its final observations and recommendations Feb. 5. The recommendations are not binding and the committee has no ability to sanction the Vatican for any shortcomings. Rather, the process is aimed at encouraging -- and occasionally shaming -- treaty signatories into abiding by their international commitments.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said Wednesday that the Holy See ratified the treaty because of its longstanding commitment to caring for children, in the fields of education, health care, refugee services and other outreach to families in need. He said that while abuses had occurred at the hands of churchmen, it was important to distinguish between where the Holy See bore responsibility and where local authorities must intervene.
"The Holy See is not an organization in which all the priests or Catholics of the world are employees. It's a big religious community," he told The Associated Press. "Every member of this community has responsibilities as citizens of the country where he or she lives and with the authorities of that country."
The Vatican will be represented by its most authoritative official on the issue, Monsignor Charles Scicluna, for a decade the Holy See's chief sex crimes prosecutor. He is credited with having overhauled the Vatican's procedures to better prosecute pedophiles in-house and make it easier to defrock them when guilty. But despite that progress, the Vatican to date has refused to instruct its bishops to report suspected cases of abuse to police, saying they need only do so when required by local laws.
"When abusers are in jail, they don't harm kids," said Miguel Hurtado, a member of the main U.S.-based victims' advocacy group SNAP, who said he was abused by a priest in the Catholic youth group he attended as a youngster in Catalonia, Spain. "And they failed to do that."
Hurtado and Spees spoke to UN correspondents in Geneva before Thursday's session, during which the Vatican will be asked about its overall policies, what it has done to protect children and specific cases including the mistreatment of seminarians in the disgraced Legion of Christ religious order, which is currently being run by the Vatican itself.
The committee had also asked the Holy See to provide detailed information on all cases of abuse that were brought to its attention -- a number the Vatican has acknowledged tops 4,000.
But in its written response to the committee submitted last month, the Vatican declined to provide such information and ducked many of the committee's questions. It says it is really only responsible for implementing the UN treaty where it exercises territorial control: the 44 hectares of the Vatican City State in downtown Rome, where 31 children currently live.
Rights groups disputed that interpretation, saying the UN committee itself had recognized that that the convention isn't limited to a state's borders and that the committee in the past had urged states to implement it beyond its territorial frontiers.
While arguing that its jurisdiction is limited to the Vatican City State, the Holy See at the same time sought to highlight the ways in which it has promoted programs to protect children and keep pedophiles out of the priesthood in the broader Catholic Church. Bishops' conferences are now required to have guidelines to fight abuse. Last month, Pope Francis said he would establish a commission to study best practices and the Vatican last summer updated its local laws to criminalize abuse of children.