GENEVA — The Vatican faced sharp questioning by a United Nations panel Monday about whether it had failed to abide by an international treaty against torture in its response to the sexual abuse of children by priests.
In the hearing, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican’s representative in Geneva, immediately found himself at odds with members of the panel, the Committee Against Torture, over the Holy See’s view that it is responsible for applying the treaty only to the few hundred inhabitants of the Vatican City state.
Another UN panel, on the rights of children, rejected that argument in February, saying that the Vatican’s responsibility for implementing human rights treaties extended to every person and institution under the Roman Catholic Church’s authority around the world.
The children’s rights committee accused the church of putting its reputation and interests ahead of those of children.
If the Committee Against Torture reaches a similar conclusion, its report could undermine one of the main obstacles to holding the church accountable for clerical sexual abuse, victims’ advocates say.
The committee is expected to issue its final observations and recommendations May 23.
Felice D. Gaer, the vice chairwoman of the committee, said the convention against torture was signed by the Holy See, which represents more than just the Vatican City state.
Never before, she said, had a party to the convention tried to limit its application to just one part of itself.
What the committee wanted, Gaer told the archbishop, “is simply that you show to us that, as a party to the convention, you have a system in place to prohibit torture and ill treatment as defined by the convention, when it is perpetrated or acquiesced to by anyone under the effective control of the officials of the Holy See and the institutions that operate in the Vatican City state.”
Pope Francis announced the formation of a commission in December to advise on combating sexual abuse.
Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston, briefing journalists over the weekend, said the panel would issue clear and effective protocols that would hold accountable any senior clerics or officials who did not report suspected abuse.
Victims of sexual abuse by members of the clergy are skeptical of these initiatives.
They have said the church, far from tackling sexual abuse, has sought to stall investigations and has kept pedophile priests in posts where they were in contact with children.
“The Holy See has consistently sidestepped real accountability and serious reform,” the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, acting on behalf of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said in a submission to the United Nations panel.
It noted that a set of guidelines issued by bishops in Italy this year and approved by the Vatican “explicitly states they are not required to inform law enforcement authorities if they suspect a child has been sexually assaulted.”
“Pope Francis and the bishops are not taking action that would protect children,” Barbara Blaine, president of the survivors network, told journalists in Geneva on Friday, calling at a minimum for removal of priests involved in abuse. “These simple acts would protect hundreds of thousands of children across the world.”