A UN committee on children's rights grills the Vatican over clergy sexual abuse

Player utilities

Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman. This is "The World". Plenty of reminders today about how controversial the Catholic Church is. In Hollywood, four Oscar nominations for Philomena, a movie about abusive and corrupt nuns. Half the world away in Geneva, a very rare public grilling of the Vatican. It happened before an United Nations Committee investigating child sex abuse. The Vatican is actually a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The committee asked Church officials about the Vatican's repeated failure to protect children from abuse. Archbishop Silvano Tomasi told the committee that child abuse in any form could never be justified and that the problem extends beyond the Church.

Silvano Tomasi: Abusers are found among members of the world's most respected professions, most regrettably including members of the clergy and other Church personnel

Werman: Tomasi said the Catholic Church is committed to dealing with the problem, but is this enough? Jane Little is a former religion correspondent who has done extensive coverage of the Vatican's sex abuse scandals.

Jane Little: I would first say that this is an unprecedented occasion. To see senior Vatican officials grilled over allegations that the Vatican protected pedophile priests at the expense of victims for years. It is unprecedented in that regard. And in terms of the defense, there was a lot said about how wrong abuse is, how it is both a crime and a sin, and also how the Church has instituted policies to protect children. All true. That said, there was also much made of the fact that local bishops and law enforcement have to deal with abusive priests, not the Vatican. And while that is actually technically true, it is, to say the least, somewhat disingenuous, because there is written evidence that the hierarchy in Rome actively obstructed police investigations.

Werman: Any sense of why finally the Vatican agreed to answer questions about the scandals, especially in such a public setting with the UN there? Do you think maybe Pope Francis had a hand in this?

Little: Yes, to some extent. I mean the Vatican ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990, so technically it was supposed to come and account for itself here. But more decisively, it's because it know it would be a big PR mistake not to go. We've had intense criticism of a culture of cover-up and obfuscation, with strong evidence in multiple cases that the Vatican has put the protection of the clergy and the Church's reputation before the protection of victims and possible future victims of abuse. But I think it was also due to the fact that there has been a change at the top. Pope Francis has dramatically shifted the tone and now the new emphasis is about the Church being on the side of the poor and the people and the Vatican needs to be seen to be following through on that.

Werman: Yeah, I mean a dramatic shift for sure. I mean Pope Francis called the sex abuse scandals "the shame of the Church". Where do things stand with the Vatican's internal struggle with these issues? Is there still active debate about how to deal with this?

Little: Oh yeah. I mean the Vatican may be an institution like no other in that it's a centuries old monastic court run by men. But they are men. We have ambitions, petty jealousies, intrigues. We saw that with of course the butler's extraordinary revelations of clerical corruption and sexual intrigue. We see in-fighting at the Vatican as we've never seen before. This is supposed to be about cleaning up house. That said, this is not an institution that has ever been about openness and transparency and accountability. It's not a democracy. So, in many ways, today we saw this fascinating culture clash between a fairly obscure, secular committee hearing and this old monastic institution.

Werman: And with Pope Francis there leading the Church now, I mean he's Time Magazine's person of the year, internet celebrity, and yet we have this stark reminder of the challenges faced in the Catholic Church.

Little: Absolutely. More strikingly he's the gay magazine The Advocate's person of the year last year. Who would ever have thought that could happen just two years ago? There's been a remarkable turn in the fortunes for the Church leadership in terms of the way the media has treated it. Pope Benedict could do no right and now it's almost the exact opposite in the media's eyes. The secular has almost made him a saint if you like. So I think this is a reminder that there are real issues here. There's a long way to go in resolving this biggest of many issues facing the Church.

Werman: Former BBC religion correspondent Jane Little there.