The Vatican insisted it had little jurisdiction to sanction pedophile priests around the globe, saying it was for local law enforcement to do so. But officials conceded that it needs to do more, given the scale of the problem and the role the Holy See plays in the international community.
"The Holy See gets it," Monsignor Charles Scicluna, the 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."
He was responding to a grilling by the U.N. committee over the Holy See's failure to abide by terms of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child which, among other things, calls for signatories to take all appropriate measures to keep children from harm. Critics allege the church enabled the rape of thousands of children by encouraging a culture of cover-up to defend its reputation.
Groups representing victims of clerical abuse have welcomed the hearing as the first time the Vatican has had to publicly defend its record. But Barbara Blaine, president of the Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, said Thursday that the Vatican's responses seem like "more of the same."
The scene inside the conference room at U.N. headquarters in Geneva was remarkable by U.N. standards, with committee members themselves marveling at how such a powerful institution as the Holy See could be hauled before a relatively obscure U.N. human rights committee to answer uncomfortable questions before a packed audience.
The committee's main human rights investigator, Sara Oviedo, was particularly tough on the Vatican delegation, asking repeated and informed follow-up questions and refusing to let the Vatican duck the answers. Oveido, a sociologist from Ecuador who was elected in June to serve as the committee's vice president, pressed the Vatican delegation on the frequent ways abusive priests were transferred rather than turned in to police.
Given the church's "zero tolerance" policy, she asked, why were there "efforts to cover up and obscure these types of cases?"
Another committee member, Maria Rita Parsi, an Italian psychologist and psychotherapist, pressed further: "If these events continue to be hidden and covered up, to what extent will children be affected?"
Committee members asked the Holy See to provide data about the scale of the problem, what it has done to address it, and what Pope Francis intends to do with a new commission announced last month to find best practices to protect children from abuse and help victims heal. They also asked about specific cases currently on the Vatican's desk, including accusations that the Vatican's own ambassador to the Dominican Republic sexually abused teenage boys.
The U.N. committee is made up of independent experts - not other U.N. member states - and it will deliver final observations and recommendations Feb. 5 that are not binding. The committee has no ability to sanction the Vatican for any shortcomings, but the process is aimed at encouraging, and sometimes shaming, treaty signatories into honoring their international commitments.
The Holy See ratified the U.N. convention in 1990, and submitted a first implementation report in 1994. But it didn't provide progress reports for nearly two decades. It 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 U.N. committee to challenge the Holy See on its abuse record, providing it with reports of 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.
Despite the unprecedented public scrutiny, Blaine of SNAP said, "When they say that these crimes should be prosecuted by states, it seems so disingenuous because we know that the church officials at the state level obstruct those efforts to bring justice."
In an interview with The Associated Press midway through the hearing, she said the Vatican seemed to be telling the committee only "lofty words" and what it wanted to hear.
"These church officials continually cite new policies that sound progressive and sound adequate, and yet we never see any evidence of following these policies. The policies are empty, and the policies have no teeth to be enforced," she said. "They have done this so many times over the decades."
The Holy See has long insisted that it isn't responsible for abusive priests, saying they aren't employees of the Vatican but rather members of the broader 1.2-billion-strong Catholic Church over which the Vatican exercises limited control. It has maintained that bishops are responsible for the priests in their care, not the pope.
"Priests are not functionaries of the Vatican," Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican's U.N. ambassador in Geneva, told the committee. "Priests are citizens of their own states, and they fall under the jurisdiction of their own country."
But victims groups and human rights organizations provided the U.N. committee with the Vatican's own documentation showing how it discouraged bishops from reporting abusers to police. In one famous case, a Vatican cardinal sent a directive to Irish bishops warning them to strike any mandatory reporting of abusers to police from their internal policies.
The Irish prime minister cited that directive and accusations that the Vatican had undermined a string of investigations into sex abuse in a remarkable 2011 dressing down of the Holy See that culminated with Ireland's decision to close its Vatican Embassy.
Tomasi was also asked about the case of the Vatican's ambassador to the Dominican Republic, who is under investigation by Dominican prosecutors for alleged abuse. The Vatican recalled Archbishop Josef Wesolowski in August, before Dominican prosecutors announced their investigation, and he hasn't been seen since.
Tomasi dodged the committee's question about whether Wesolowski would be turned over to secular authorities for prosecution. The Vatican has said it doesn't extradite its own citizens. Rather, Tomasi said Wesolowski is being investigated by the Vatican's own prosecutors.
"It will be judged with the severity that the crimes might demand," Tomasi assured the committee.
Scicluna, a Maltese bishop, has previously said bishops who failed to discipline pedophile priests or report them to police must be held accountable.
He appeared to refer to that in saying that criminal prosecutors must go after anyone - "whoever these people are" - who obstructs justice.
Victims groups and human rights organizations were closely monitoring the hearing.
"I think it's time for the church to stop this secrecy," Teodoro Pulvirenti, who said he was abused by a priest, told The Associated Press in New York. "I believe the church puts too much of its reputation before the victims and you know the pain of this abuse that we carry. That's why I was so excited when I heard about this final meeting between the Vatican representatives and the U.N."
Winfield reported from Rome.