GENEVA -- The Vatican has dismissed more than 800 priests for sexual abuse of children in the past decade and paid billions of dollars in compensation, senior Vatican officials told a United Nations panel Tuesday, presenting the Roman Catholic Church as a model of reform but drawing the ire of victims' groups that said it still seeks to dodge responsibility for the harm that priests continue to inflict.
The extraordinary disclosures came on the second day of hearings by a U.N. committee in Geneva reviewing the Vatican's compliance with an international treaty prohibiting torture. Church officials faced blunt questions about the measures taken to punish priests who abuse children and the church's willingness to cooperate with civil authorities in punishing such crimes.
Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican's representative in Geneva, stuck resolutely to a narrow interpretation of the treaty on torture, saying it applied to the Holy See only in the case of the few hundred residents of Vatican City. But he spoke of a new culture in the church over tackling sexual abuse.
He told the panel that in addition to 848 priests dismissed between 2004 and 2013, 2,572 other members of the clergy had been disciplined for sexual abuse, putting children beyond their reach.
Compensation by Catholic dioceses and religious orders to victims since 1950 has amounted to about $2.5 billion, he said, detailing about $125 million in other payments for therapy and other expenses related to investigations and litigation. To protect children, the church has spent $260 million in the past decade on background checks of priests, he said.
The barrage of statistics accompanied a broader argument that the Holy See was committed to "cleaning house" and had turned a corner on practices Archbishop Tomasi repeatedly linked to the culture of times past. "We must not be fossilized in the past," he said, after being asked about transfers of priests from diocese to diocese that enabled them to escape investigation and prosecution. "This was a policy practiced decades ago, mostly.
"It's 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 told the panel, holding up the church's record as a model of good practice that other institutions might consider.
The committee's reaction will emerge in final observations scheduled to be issued May 23, but its members clearly found some of Archbishop Tomasi's responses wanting.
Felice D. Gaer, the panel's vice chairwoman, suggested that the Vatican's narrow view of the scope of its responsibilities risked "creating gaps in the coverage of the convention." Another panel member, George Tugushi, said he found the compensation figures "very impressive," but added that "on the other hand, we have received many reports of people that did not receive redress."
The archbishop's responses also drew mixed reviews from representatives of nongovernmental organizations in the audience. Ashley McGuire, a member of Catholic Voices USA's advisory board, said the archbishop had made clear that "the church is a very different place to what it was a decade ago."
But Barbara Blaine, president of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said he had described what the church should be doing, but that "what's actually happening is very, very different."