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UN Committee Grills Vatican Officials On Sex Abuse


For the second time this year, Vatican officials were subjected to scathing questions by a U.N. panel. The questions focus on the church's handling of cases of sexual abuse by priests. The grilling came in two days of hearings in Geneva by the U.N. Committee on Torture. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli is following this and joins me now. And Sylvia, earlier this year, it was a U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child that issued a very harsh report about clerical sex abuse. What is the Committee on Torture saying now, and is it different?

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Well, the final report won't be issued until the end of the month, but questions by several committee members made it clear they do consider rape and molestation of children and adults a form of torture and inhuman treatment. The Vatican ambassador, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, shot back that the Vatican considers abortion a torture of the unborn. Generally, the Vatican's main defense is that in signing the U.N. Convention Against Torture, its responsibility extends only to Vatican City State, a nation that has fewer than 1,000 inhabitants. The Vatican ambassador said repeatedly that in the last 10 years, the Catholic Church has made a full commitment to clean house and to enact measures to prevent the abuse of children. He also cited the commission appointed by Pope Francis for the protection of minors, which had its first session last week in Rome, although he was unable to say whether it will examine specific cases because it's still drawing up its own bylaws.

BLOCK: Now, Sylvia, the Vatican ambassador you're talking about also released today a comprehensive list of statistics showing just how many priests the church has disciplined over child sex abuse - the first time the Vatican has done that. What did the numbers show?

POGGIOLI: Well, he said that in the last decade, 848 priests have been defrocked by the Vatican's doctrinal office, and another 2,572 - a much larger number - were given lesser sanctions; and that includes, he said, a ban on contact with children. But when he was pressed to say how many of those same priests were reported to civil authorities, he was not able to answer precisely. He also did not answer questions on whether the Holy See conducts any monitoring of these individuals while they're under judgment and after they're defrocked. He said that they become, once they're defrocked, they become laypeople who no longer have a formal relationship with their bishop or religious superior.

BLOCK: And Ambassador Tomasi was also asked, I gather, about the practice of transferring abusive priests from one diocese to another. What did he say about that?

POGGIOLI: Oh, he blamed the culture of the '60s. He said that practice existed several decades ago when, he said, cases of abusive priests were normally sent to psychiatrists or psychologists, who - he claimed - after a while would say the man could go back to society. The archbishop said that doesn't happen now because the culture has changed, but he did not address any case of bishops who covered up for abusive priests.

BLOCK: Sylvia, you mentioned that the Vatican has claimed that its jurisdiction is limited to Vatican City, not the worldwide Catholic Church. What did the U.N. panel have to say about that?

POGGIOLI: Well, Felice Gaer, a rapporteur from the United States, took aim at the distinction being made in treaty responsibilities between Vatican City State and the Holy See. She said it's the Holy See which enters into diplomatic agreements with other states. And she pointed out the Vatican officials have broad powers of control on many issues; for example, the appointment of bishops worldwide and significantly, the very defrocking of priests.

BLOCK: So in the end, Sylvia, this is a U.N. panel, a committee on torture. If they come out with a report concluding that the abuse of children by priests amounts to torture - it's a nonbinding finding - what happens then?

POGGIOLI: Well, nothing specifically happens. But in the legal world, in the world of jurisprudence, it could be possible that more people, more victims of predator priests could take the Vatican to court.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli. We were talking about the hearing by a U.N. panel on the sexual abuse of children by priests. Sylvia, thanks so much.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, Melissa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.