Vatican has shown 'total commitment' in anti-abuse fight

The Vatican on Tuesday said it had shown its mettle in the battle against child sex abuse by priests, telling a UN hearing that it was determined to stamp out the scourge.

"Any serious look at the reality around the world on what the Holy See and the local Churches are doing shows clearly and without ambiguity that certainly there is no climate of impunity," the Holy See's UN envoy Monsignor Silvano Tomasi said.

Hundreds of abusers have been driven out of Church ranks over the past decade, he said.

"There is a total commitment to clean the house, to change, and above all to work and effect measures that prevent the repetition of abuse. We have crossed a threshold in the evolution of the approach to this problem," he insisted.

The two-day hearing which began Monday marked the first scrutiny of the Vatican since it signed up in 2002 to a global convention banning torture, and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishment.

The panel of independent rights and legal experts that oversees the convention lauded the Church's global work with victims of war and violence, but demanded to know how the Holy See was righting the wrongs of abuse.

It vice-chair, American Felice Gaer, said international law was clear that rape and sexual violence constituted torture.

The Roman Catholic Church has been shaken by a decade-long cascade of scandals over abuse by priests and lay officials, from Ireland to the United States and Australia.

New cases continue to emerge, notably in Poland, Portugal and Latin America.

Benedict XVI, pontiff from 2005 to 2013, was the first pope to apologise to victims and call for zero tolerance.

His successor Pope Francis has stepped up efforts, revising Church laws and creating a commission involving victims to develop tougher ways to protect minors and increase accountability.

Tomasi said that the world could learn lessons from that.

"It is clear that the issue of sexual abuse of children, which is a worldwide plague and scourge, has been addressed in the last 10 years by the Church in a systematic, constructive, effective way," he said.

"This is something that is worth looking at as good practice that other institutions and states can copy".

- 848 abuser priests defrocked -

The Church counted 414,313 priests globally in 2012.

Tomasi said 3,420 cases based on "credible accusations" of abuse have been handled over the past decade the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the Church prosecuting arm, mostly over offences from the 1950s to 1980s.

Of those, 848 priests were defrocked -- expelled from the priesthood. A further 2,572 were ordered to "live a life of prayer or penance", for example in a monastery.

"This does not mean the person gets away with the crime they have committed. They are all taken out of the context where they can reach children," Tomasi said.

He said he was unable immediately to provide data on numbers turned over to justice authorities in countries where crimes occurred, but that he thought most cases were reported and not just handled in-house.

"When there is a credible accusation, it should be reported to civil authorities as well," he underlined.

However, Barbara Blaine, president of the 18,000-strong international Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said the Vatican's defence was "more of the same".

"Tomasi describes what should happen in clergy sex cases, according to Church policy, but what actually happens is very, very different," she told AFP.

Critics say the Vatican and individual dioceses have helped abusers escape justice by covering up crimes and transferring them to new parishes, sometimes abroad.

"That has been a policy that was practised decades ago, mostly," Tomasi said, insisting that national justice systems had also been less ardent about pursuing paedophiles at the time.

He locked horns with panel members who questioned the Church stance on abortion due to risks to a mother's health and psychology, notably in rape cases.

"We consider the right to life as a non-negotiable," said Tomasi. "We condemn torture, including for those tortured and killed before they are born."

The panel will issue its conclusions on the hearing on May 23.