In its second grilling at the United Nations this year, the Vatican yesterday 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 UN Convention Against Torture, which the Vatican ratified in 2002, has hauled the Holy See before its members.
Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican's UN ambassador in Geneva, lost no time asserting that its responsibility for enforcing the UN 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 kilometre 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 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 two hours to allow the Vatican delegation to prepare responses for when the hearing resumes today.
Tomasi acknowledged there remain differences over "the line of legal and moral responsibility" for implementing the treaty. He said there has been a "stabilisation, even a decline in cases of paedophilia" 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 UN committee blasted the Holy See in January, accusing it of 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.