ROME — Pope Francis has taken measures to address a spiraling sex abuse scandal in Chile, but he hasn’t moved on a problem closer to home: Vatican City itself does not have policies to protect children from pedophile priests or require suspected abuse to be reported to police.
Seven years after the Vatican ordered all bishops conferences around the world to develop written guidelines to prevent abuse, tend to victims, punish offenders and keep pedophiles out of the priesthood, the headquarters of the Catholic Church has no such policy.
The gap in Francis’ oft-pledged “zero tolerance” for abuse is surprising, given that the Holy See told the United Nations five years ago that it was developing a “safe environment program” for children inside the 44-acre Vatican City.
Asked about the promised child protection guidelines, the secretary general of the Vatican City State administration, Monsignor Fernando Vergez, told The Associated Press he couldn’t respond “since the study and verification of the project are still underway.”
Yes, Francis in 2013 updated Vatican City’s legal code to criminalize sexual violence against children and just last month the Vatican tribunal convicted a former diplomat of possession and distribution of child pornography.
And one could argue that, beyond the new law, a written policy and safe environment program is unnecessary in a city state where only a handful of children live full time.
But thousands of children pass through the Vatican walls every day, touring the Vatican Museums, attending papal audiences and Masses and visiting St. Peter’s Square and basilica.
And Vatican City authorities wouldn’t have to look far for help in crafting such a policy. The pope’s own Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors — his hand-picked sex abuse advisory board — has a template for such guidelines on its Vatican website.
The absence of clear-cut policy became evident late last year following revelations that a teenage seminarian in the Vatican’s youth seminary had, in 2012, accused one of the older boys of sexually molesting his roommate.
Nothing came of it. Vatican police, who have jurisdiction over the territory, weren’t called in to investigate. A series of bishops — including Cardinal Angelo Comastri, Francis’ vicar for Rome and the archpriest of St. Peter’s Basilica — said they investigated, but no one ever interviewed the alleged victim.
The student who lodged the complaint, Kamil Jarzembowski, was promptly kicked out of the seminary while the accused seminarian was ordained a priest last year.
The Associated Press has learned that the victim has since filed a formal complaint with the Vatican’s criminal tribunal and Italian church authorities launched a canonical investigation into the newly ordained priest.
Those developments occurred after Italian journalists Gaetano Pecoraro and Gianluigi Nuzzi exposed the scandal last year, prompting the Vatican to reopen the investigation. In their reports, Jarzembowski’s story — including all the letters he sent to church authorities, Vatican officials and the pope over the years — came to light.
“In those years when I was sending letters, there was never any response,” Jarzembowski told the AP. “I was really hurting, because silence can be a real weapon that hurts you when you suffer. You make a denunciation and no one will deal with it.”
Church officials had discounted Jarzembowski’s complaint, claiming that he only went public with it because he was bitter at having been kicked out of the seminary. Jarzembowski is indeed bitter — the Polish student had to scramble to find a place to live and a new school for his senior year of high school.
The seminary in question, located inside a palazzo just a few steps from the Vatican hotel where Francis lives, serves as a residence for about a dozen boys, aged 12 to 18, who serve as altar boys at papal Masses.
Jarzembowski says his roommate was first molested by the older seminarian when both were minors, but that the molestation continued after the older seminarian turned 18.
The status of the investigation is unclear. Calls and emails to the Diocese of Como, which is in charge of the seminary and is conducting the canonical investigation, were not returned. The Vatican spokesman declined several requests for comment.
But the lack of a full-fledged investigation into Jarzembowski’s original claims exposed how the absence of a policy on handling abuse complaints can have repercussions.
“If the Holy See can’t be bothered to safeguard the handful of kids in its own backyard, how can it possibly protect the millions of children in its care worldwide?” asked Anne Barrett Doyle of the online research database BishopAccountability.org. “It’s a small but telling measure of the Catholic Church’s disconnect when it comes to its abuse problem. It makes promises that it abandons or forgets once the world’s attention fades.”
The promises were made five years ago, when the Vatican went before the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child to defend its efforts to combat the global sex abuse scandal.
The Holy See argued that the U.N. child rights convention was “territorial” in nature, and that the Holy See can’t possibly be responsible for implementing it outside the confines of Vatican City. Within the city state, however, it told the U.N. it was taking extensive measures to protect children.
Not surprisingly, the U.N. committee dismissed the Vatican’s argument and urged the Vatican to not only make good on protecting children inside Vatican territory but globally.
“We did not agree with the narrow understanding of implementation … as confined to the Vatican City state,” said Kirsten Sandberg, president of the U.N. committee at the time.
The Vatican was supposed to report back to the committee last September about progress it has made since its 2013 submission. Sandberg said countries are often late on those deadlines — the Holy See was 14 years late when it finally submitted its responses in 2013.
She said she hoped the Holy See in its next report would follow up on a core recommendation to require cooperation with police rather than keeping investigations exclusively in-house.
“They should leave the cases to the judicial authorities,” she said.
Jamey Keaten contributed from Geneva.