The United Nations on Wednesday demanded that the Vatican "immediately remove" all clergy who are known or suspected child abusers and turn them over to civil authorities, in an unprecedented and scathing report that the Holy See's ambassador to the U.N. promptly denounced.
The U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child also urged the Vatican to hand over its archives on sexual abuse of tens of thousands of children so that culprits, as well as "those who concealed their crimes,” could be held accountable.
The watchdog's blunt paper — the most far-reaching critique of the church hierarchy by the world body — followed its public grilling of Vatican officials last month. The U.N. report blasted the "code of silence" that has long been used to keep victims quiet, saying the Holy See had "systematically placed preservation of the reputation of the church and the alleged offender over the protection of child victims."
It also criticized the Holy See for failing to publicly recognize the scope of the problem.
"The committee is gravely concerned that the Holy See has not acknowledged the extent of the crimes committed, has not taken the necessary measures to address cases of child sexual abuse and to protect children and has adopted policies and practices which have led to the continuation of the abuse by, and the impunity of, the perpetrators," the report said.
It urged the sex abuse commission that Pope Francis announced in December to conduct an independent investigation of all cases of priestly abuse and the way the Catholic hierarchy has responded over time, and said the Holy See should establish clear rules for the mandatory reporting of abuse to police and to support laws that allow victims to report crimes even after the statute of limitations has expired.
No Catholic bishop has ever been sanctioned for sheltering an abusive priest, and only in 2010 did the Holy See direct bishops to report abusers to police where law enforcement requires it. Vatican officials have acknowledged that bishop accountability remains a major problem and have suggested that under Pope Francis things might begin to change.
While most attention has focused on child sex abuse, the committee also faulted the Vatican for its positions against homosexual activity, contraception and abortion.
The Vatican released a statement Wednesday that the Catholic Church is committed to protecting children from abuse, and that it will give the U.N. report a “thorough study and examination.”
The Vatican, however, added that the U.N. was interfering with church teachings by criticizing its views on homosexuality, contraception and abortion.
Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican's ambassador to the U.N., told Vatican Radio that it appeared the committee simply hadn't listened when the Holy See outlined all the measures it had taken to protect children.
"It seems as if the document was prepared before the committee meeting, where the Vatican gave detailed responses on various points that weren't reported in this concluding document or seem to not have been taken into consideration," he said.
Tomasi also said the call to reconsider abortion ran against the U.N.’s own objectives to protect the lives of children, and he accused pro-gay rights and gay-marriage advocacy groups of having "reinforced an ideological line" within the committee.
Austen Ivereigh, coordinator of Catholic Voices, a U.K.-based church advocacy group, told the Associated Press that the report was a "shocking display of ignorance and high-handedness."
He said it failed to acknowledge the progress that has been made in recent years and that the Catholic Church in many places is now considered a leader in safeguarding children.
He also noted that the committee seemed unable to grasp the distinction between the responsibilities and jurisdiction of the Holy See and that of local churches.
"It takes no account of the particularities of the Holy See, treating it as if it were the HQ of a multinational corporation," he told the AP in an email.
But Barbara Blaine of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) called the report "a wake-up call." She told Reuters that "for the safety of children, we hope every head of state on the planet reads this and acts on it."
The committee's recommendations are nonbinding, and there is no enforcement mechanism. Rather, the U.N. asked the Vatican to implement the recommendations and report back by 2017. The Vatican was 14 years late submitting its most recent report.
Al Jazeera and wire services