U.N. Panel Could Find Vatican Guilty Of Torture

This week the Vatican faced a U.N. panel investigating priest sex abuse. The panel called for an end to what it called a Vatican "climate of impunity."

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. The Vatican got a grilling this past week for its handling of the clerical sex abuse scandal. The setting - a United Nations hearing in Geneva. Meanwhile in Rome, a new advisory board to Pope Francis held its first meeting on the sex abuse crisis.

In a moment we'll hear from a member of that board whose personal story of abuse may be hard for some listeners to hear. But first, NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports on that U.N. committee looking into the Vatican's response to sexual abuse.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: In February, the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child accused the church of systematically placing its own interests over those of sex abuse victims by using a code of silence to protect predator priests. The Vatican reacted angrily.

This week, facing another U.N. committee - this one on torture - the church was better prepared. For the first time, it released comprehensive statistics on how many priests have been defrocked over the last decade for raping and molesting children. The number is 848. More than 2,500 other priests received lesser penalties.

Still, the Vatican's ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, insisted the Holy See can implement international law only within the borders of the tiny Vatican city state. Members of the U.N. panel dismissed this claim, noting the Vatican's broad powers to appoint bishops and defrock priests worldwide.

The U.N. committee will issue its report in two weeks. Should it find that rape and molestation of children constitute torture and inhuman treatment, it could expose the Catholic Church to a new wave of lawsuits. Days before the U.N. hearing in Geneva, members of the Pope's own commission on sex abuse pledged to hold church authorities accountable for failing to report suspected abusers.

Boston's archbishop, Cardinal Sean O'Malley, said current church laws could be applied to keep children safe, but he said protocols must be strengthened. Archbishop O'Malley acknowledged there is so much ignorance around this - so much denial. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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