The Vatican came under blistering criticism from a United Nations committee Thursday over allegations it protected pedophile priests at the expense of victims in what constituted a worldwide sex abuse scandal.
It was the first time the Holy See has been grilled in public on cases of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy around the world.
The U.N. committee's main human rights investigator, Sara Oviedo, led the most intense grilling the Holy See has received on the issue, according to a report by The Associated Press.
Given the "zero tolerance" policy of the Vatican, she asked, why were there "efforts to cover up and obscure these types of cases?"
The U.N. committee in Geneva, Switzerland, was pressing the Holy See about its failure to provide reports for almost two decades on the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, which it ratified in 1990. It also asked for more information about the special committee announced by Pope Francis in December that aims to improve measures to protect children against sex abuse.
The Vatican insists it is not responsible for the actions of priests, who it says are not its employees but citizens of their own countries.
"Priests are not functionaries of the Vatican," Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican's U.N. ambassador in Geneva, said Thursday. "Priests are citizens of their own states, and they fall under the jurisdiction of their own country."
But victims' groups and human rights organizations provided the U.N. committee with documents from the Vatican showing it discouraged bishops from reporting abuse, the AP report said. The committee also cited investigations from the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Britain, Ireland and Australia.
"The Holy See gets it," former Vatican sex crimes prosecutor Monsignor Charles Scicluna said. "Let's not say too late or not. But there are certain things that need to be done differently."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.