GENEVA/VATICAN CITY - The United Nations on Wednesday accused the Vatican of systematically turning a blind eye to decades of sexual abuse of children by priests, and demanded it immediately turn over known or suspected offenders to civil justice.
A scathingly blunt report by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child said church officials had imposed a "code of silence" on clerics and moved abusers from parish to parish "in an attempt to cover up such crimes".
It said the Holy See must hand over an archive of evidence about the abuse of tens of thousands of children and take measures to prevent a repeat of cases such as the scandal of Ireland's Magdalene Laundries, where girls were forced to work in church-run institutions.
In its own combative response, the Vatican said the Roman Catholic Church was committed to protecting children. It called the report "distorted" and "unfair" and said it had failed to properly consider measures the church has introduced in the past decade to protect children.
"This committee has not rendered a good service to the United Nations," Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, head of the Vatican delegation to UN organizations in Geneva, told Vatican Radio.
Reacting to the report's demands for changes in its opposition to homosexuality, abortion and artificial contraception, the Vatican accused the committee of interfering in religious freedom and trying to dictate modifications to "non-negotiable" moral teachings.
Tomasi said non-governmental organizations that favour gay marriage - which the Vatican opposes - had probably influenced the committee to reinforce what he called "an ideological line" in the report.
ABUSE AND IMPUNITY
The committee said it was "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".
It urged the Vatican to "immediately remove all known and suspected child sexual abusers from assignment and refer the matter to the relevant law enforcement authorities for investigation and prosecution purposes".
Since taking office 11 months ago, Pope Francis has called sexual abuse of children "the shame of the church" and has vowed to continue procedures put in place by his predecessor, Benedict XVI.
But the report expressed "serious concern that in dealing with child victims of different forms of abuse, the Holy See has systematically placed preservation of the reputation of the church and the alleged offender over the protection of child victims".
While several bishops have resigned in Europe and the United States after abuse scandals in their dioceses, victims' groups say the Vatican must make bishops legally accountable for alleged cover-ups.
"If the pope is serious about turning the page on this scandal, he should immediately dismiss any bishop who oversaw a diocese in which a priest who abused children was shielded from the civil authorities," said Jon O'Brien, president of the U.S. lobby group Catholics for Choice.
The report said a commission that Francis set up in December should invite outside experts and victims to participate in an investigation of abusers "as well as the conduct of the Catholic hierarchy in dealing with them".
Barbara Blaine, president of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) said the report was a "wake-up call".
"For the safety of children, we hope every head of state on the planet reads this and acts on it," said Blaine, an American who as a child was abused by a priest.
Miguel Hurtado, who was sexually abused by a priest in Spain when he was 16 and travelled to Geneva for the report's release, said he felt emotional and vindicated.
"Many times, victims were disbelieved. They doubted our stories, they doubted our motives. They thought that our motives were because we were after money or destroying or attacking the church," the 31-year-old told Reuters.
At a stormy grilling by the committee in Geneva last month, the Holy See's delegation, answering questions from an international rights panel for the first time since the scandals broke about 15 years ago, denied allegations of a cover-up and said the church had set clear guidelines to protect children from predator priests.
Wednesday's report called for an internal investigation of the Magdalene Laundries and similar institutions so that those who were responsible could be prosecuted, and "full compensation" could be paid to victims and families.
It also said priests who had fathered children should be held accountable and made to provide for their upkeep.
"We expect the Holy See (and the Pope) to follow up on these recommendations ... to protect victims and give them compensation," Kirsten Sandberg, a Norwegian committee member, told a news conference in Geneva.