GENEVA — It resembled a courtroom cross-examination, except no question was off limits, dodging the answer was not an option, and the proceedings were webcast live.
After decades of accusations that its culture of secrecy contributed to priest sex abuse, the Vatican was forced for the first time Thursday to defend its record in public and at length.
In a stuffy UN conference room before an obscure human rights committee, the Holy See was interrogated for eight hours about the scale of abuse and what it was doing to prevent it.
The Vatican was compelled to appear before the committee as a signatory to the UN Convention for the Rights of the Child, which requires governments to take all adequate measures to protect children from harm and ensure their interests are placed above all else.
The Holy See was one of the first states to ratify the treaty in 1990, eager to contribute the church’s experience in caring for children in Catholic schools, hospitals, orphanages, and refugee centers. It submitted a first implementation report in 1994 but did not provide progress assessments for nearly two decades, until 2012.
By then, the clerical sex abuse scandal had exploded around the world. Thousands of priests were accused of raping and molesting thousands of children over decades, while many of their bishops moved them from parish to parish rather than report them to police. Critics allege the Holy See, the central government of the 1.2-billion strong Catholic Church, contributed to the problem by encouraging a culture of secrecy to protect the church’s reputation.
Thursday’s exchanges were sharp at times.
‘‘How can we address this whole systematic policy of silencing of victims?’’ asked committee member Benyam Mezmur, an Ethiopian academic. ‘‘There are two principles that I see are being undermined in a number of instances, namely transparency and accountability.’’
Monsignor Charles Scicluna, the Vatican’s former sex crimes prosecutor, replied: ‘‘I am with you when you say that all of these nice words will not mean anything . . . if there is not more transparency and accountability on the local level.’’
The Vatican insisted it had little jurisdiction to sanction pedophile priests. ‘‘Priests are not functionaries of the Vatican,’’ Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican’s UN ambassador in Geneva, said. ‘‘Priests are citizens of their own states, and they fall under the jurisdiction of their own country.’’
Victims groups called the defense hollow, given how Vatican officials instructed bishops for decades to not turn abusive priests in to police but to keep the cases confidential.
‘‘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,’’ said Barbara Blaine, president of the US victims’ group, SNAP.
The scene at the human rights committee’s headquarters was remarkable, with committee members marveling at how an institution as powerful as the Holy See could be hauled before a relatively obscure agency to answer uncomfortable questions before a packed audience.
Traditionally, the Holy See has insisted that the Vatican bore little or no responsibility for the problem, blaming the scandals on individual priests or their bishops, over whom the Vatican has no real control.
While insisting on that legal separation, the Vatican did respond to questions about cases even where it had no jurisdiction or involvement, and on many occasions it welcomed recommendations on ways to make children safer.
‘‘The Holy See gets it,’’ Scicluna told the committee. ‘‘Let’s not say too late or not. But there are certain things that need to be done differently.’’
Yet while the Vatican in 2010 for the first time publicly encouraged bishops to cooperate with police investigating abusers, it came with a hedge: only where local laws require it.
As a result, victims’ groups said they were not impressed by the Vatican’s performance or pledges, though they said they appreciated the seriousness with which the committee members grilled the delegation.
‘‘I think it is a step in the process,’’ said Ton Leerschool of Survivors Voice Europe. ‘‘It’s already quite historic that this happened. That there would not be real results, I expected that from this meeting.’’
The UN committee, made up of independent experts, will deliver its observations and nonbinding recommendations on Feb. 5.