Pope Francis has won over many critics in his brief time as head of the Catholic Church by presenting a more humane and empathetic face of the Church. His calls for compassion for vulnerable and marginalized members of society have won praise from Catholics and non-Catholics alike, leading in part to his selection as TIME’s Person of the Year for 2013.
However, his biggest test may be yet to come: dealing with the Vatican’s infamous record of sexual-abuse cases against children and the alleged cover-ups protecting pedophile priests. The scandals suggest decades-long histories of abuse, spanning continents and implicating eminences high up in the church.
On Jan. 16, this will come to a head when a U.N. committee concludes its investigation into the Holy See’s compliance with the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. Vatican officials will be subject to a daylong public grilling in Geneva. It’s the first time the Holy See will be called to answer, at length, for its record of tackling child sex abuse before an international body. Leading the church’s delegation of five will be Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican’s representative in Geneva, and Monsignor Charles Scicluna, its former chief sex-crimes prosecutor.
Katherine Gallagher, a senior attorney with the U.S.-based advocacy group Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), says: “While we may have seen a different tone for marginalized groups from Pope Francis, we have yet to see a change with the way the Vatican deals with sexual violence by members of the Catholic clergy.” The CCR has called for an investigation and prosecution of those allegedly responsible by the International Criminal Court, collecting more than 22,000 pages of supporting evidence, including testimonies from victims, police reports and findings of international commissions of inquiry and grand juries. It has also submitted evidence to the U.N. committee’s investigation, writing, “serious breaches of obligations under the Convention [on the Rights of the Child] continue under the new Pope” and “children continue to be at risk.”
Gallagher points to two recent developments as examples of the Vatican’s troubled record on the issue: its refusal in November to share with the U.N. details of its own investigations into cases of alleged sexual abuse of children and reports from Polish prosecutors in January that the Vatican had turned down an extradition request from Warsaw for Archbishop Jozef Wesolowski, who is under investigation for alleged sex abuse, making him the highest-ranking Vatican official ever to be investigated on the issue.
Wesolowski was removed from his post as papal ambassador to the Dominican Republic in August and dismissed from office when allegations emerged that he had sexually abused young boys. The Vatican has since denied that there was such an extradition request, but have indicated that Wesolowski is facing a criminal investigation by the Vatican’s own criminal court — which John L. Allen Jr., senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, describes as “revolutionary” for the church.
Though Pope Francis has remained relatively quiet on sex-abuse cases, there have been several steps taken on the issue during his leadership. In April, shortly after becoming Pontiff, Francis directed the church’s enforcement arm, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to act more decisively on abuse cases. In the summer, the Holy See’s criminal code was updated to criminalize sexual violence against children, which in the previous law existed in a general form as a crime against “good customs.” And just before the close of last year, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, one of the eight cardinals advising the Pope, announced Francis’ decision to establish a commission on the sexual abuse of children by priests, focused on providing emotional and spiritual care for victims of abuse rather than playing any judicial function.
For some victims and survivors, these steps are not enough. “Pope Francis, as boss, is enabling sexual predators by failing to hold them accountable,” says Barbara Blaine, the founder and director of the group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. Blaine, who says her priest in Toledo, Ohio, abused her as a teenager between 1969 and 1974, criticizes the church’s emphasis on conducting its own investigations, arguing that historically it has failed to address the problems. “Many of us who were abused by an assistant pastor looked to the pastor to make things right, then the bishop, then the Vatican,” she says. “No one fixed the problem. What authority in the world can hold the Vatican accountable?”
Blaine says however that she and other survivors do hold out hope: “We have to have hope because of what is at stake. What’s at stake is more children being violated. I believe change is possible, with the reforms that Pope Francis is bringing about, why not?”
“The church is trying to change, but for some people it is taking too long,” acknowledges Danny Sullivan, who heads the U.K.-based National Catholic Safeguarding Commission, an independent body that works within the framework of the Catholic Church in England and Wales to police its approach to abuse cases and safeguarding work. Sullivan welcomes Francis’ decision to establish a commission on sexual-abuse cases, given the many areas he has to deal with, but accepts that from the victims’ perspective, “the jury is still out until they see that the Vatican has made significant changes.”
The Vatican turned down TIME’s request for comment on the upcoming hearing, but among the questions church officials will be expected to address in Geneva include how it is making sure that known abusive priests are kept from further contact with children. The U.N. committee, which is made up of independent experts, will make its final observations and recommendations on Feb. 5. While their recommendations are not binding, Gallagher hopes the process will encourage meaningful reform and make people “recognize that this is not a problem of the past.”