ROME -- In their toughest and most public questioning to date about sexual abuse of children by members of the clergy, senior Vatican officials came under heavy criticism Thursday from a United Nations committee over their handling of such cases and promised that changes were underway.
"The Holy See gets it," Msgr. Charles Scicluna, the Vatican's former sex crimes prosecutor, told the Committee on the Rights of the Child at a meeting in Geneva.
But Scicluna and a colleague maintained the Vatican’s position that, while it is responsible for responding to abuses committed within the confines of the Vatican state, it is up to local law enforcers to punish abusive priests around the world.
"Priests are not functionaries of the Vatican," said Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican's envoy to the U.N. in Geneva. "Priests are citizens of their own states, and they fall under the jurisdiction of their own country."
That contention does not satisfy the Vatican's critics, who accuse senior officials in the Roman Catholic Church of actively trying to cover up cases of abuse.
“It seems disingenuous to claim that states are responsible for these crimes, when church officials have been obstructing justice,” Barbara Blaine, head of the U.S.-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, told reporters.
Still, she described Thursday's hearing as “historic,” saying the spectacle of Vatican officials being raked over the coals by the U.N. had "given hope to [abuse] survivors across the globe.”
The Holy See was summoned to Geneva to explain its compliance with the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, which the Vatican signed in 1990.
Sara Oviedo, a committee investigator, quizzed the Vatican officials about the transfer of abusive priests to new dioceses, asking why there were "efforts to cover up and obscure these types of cases."
Tomasi was asked specifically about the Vatican’s internal investigation of Archbishop Jozef Wesolowski, a former envoy to the Dominican Republic who was ordered back to the Vatican in August after allegations surfaced he had abused young men.
“They didn’t answer whether he would be turned over" to civil authorities, Blaine noted.
Pam Spees, a lawyer with the U.S. Center for Constitutional Rights who attended the session, said it was “made clear your obligations don’t end at boundaries."
"There is a clear responsibility. The committee is showing it understands that,” she said.
The panel is due to report its conclusions, which are non-binding, on Feb. 5.
Last month, Pope Francis announced the formation of a commission to figure out how to protect children from abuse by the clergy.
At his daily Mass on Thursday, Francis acknowledged the Vatican was suffering from “so many scandals,” calling them "the shame of the church."
Kington is a special correspondent.