Vatican grilled on child abuse by UN watchdog

GENEVA (AFP) - The Vatican was Thursday pushed for the first time to provide answers to the UN over its commitment to stamp out child sex abuse by priests.

The landmark six-hour session before the UN's child rights watchdog in Geneva came as Pope Francis said Catholics should feel "shame", in an apparent reference to the scandals that have rocked the Church.

Pope Francis, who has vowed zero tolerance of abuse, last month created a special commission to investigate sex crimes, enforce prevention and care for victims.

Monsignor Charles Scicluna, the Vatican's former top prosecutor, insisted the Church understood what it had to do. "The Holy See gets it, that certain things have to be done differently," he told the committee. "It's not words, it has to be commitment on the ground, on the level of the local churches," he added.

But the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child questioned the Vatican's resolve.

"I have my doubts about the change in attitude," committee member Sara Oviedo told the Vatican delegation. "You need to get down to business. We need to see concrete actions." The Catholic Church has been shaken by a decade of scandals involving child abuse by priests and lay officials, from Ireland to the United States and Australia.

Pressed for details of the new commission, the Vatican's UN ambassador Monsignor Silvano Tomasi said its ground rules and membership were still being established.

Oviedo also demanded to know what the Vatican was doing in the case of Archbishop Jozef Wesolowski, a papal envoy from Poland recalled to Rome from the Dominican Republic amid claims of abuse.

Without naming the envoy, the Vatican said it was investigating the case.

But victims' groups question its commitment to turn rhetoric into reality.

"These are just yet more empty words," Polish campaigner Marek Lisinki told AFP in Geneva. "They keep telling us what they're doing, but there's a lack of concrete answers."

Abuse has often been covered up by priests' superiors, who typically transferred offenders to new parishes, rather than turn them over to police. Scicluna insisted that was no longer the case. "It is a no-go simply to move people from one diocese to another. There is no place in the priesthood for anyone who would harm children and the young," he said.

"It is not a policy of the Holy See to encourage cover-ups. Our guideline has always been that domestic law of the countries where the churches operate needs to be followed," he added.

The Vatican says it receives around 600 claims against abusive priests every year, many dating back to the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Victims' groups say the issue is far from settled with cases of ongoing abuse emerging regularly and the tally potentially in the hundreds of thousands.

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