The United Nations 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 on Wednesday.
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child said church officials had imposed a “code of silence” on clerics to prevent them reporting attacks to police, 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.
The Vatican responded quickly with a statement saying the Roman Catholic Church would study the report and was committed to “defending and protecting the rights of the child”.
But shortly afterwards Vatican diplomat Archbishop Silvano Tomasi condemned the report as distorted and unfair, saying it did not take into account changes that the Church had made in the past 10 years or so to protect children.
The exceptionally blunt paper – the United Nations’ broadest critique of the Church hierarchy – followed its public grilling of Vatican officials last month.
“CONTINUATION OF ABUSE”
“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 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”.
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.
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”.
“Due to a code of silence imposed on all members of the clergy under penalty of excommunication, cases of child sexual abuse have hardly ever been reported to the law enforcement authorities in the countries where such crimes occurred,” it said.
Barbara Blaine 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.”
At a public session in Geneva last month, the committee pushed Vatican delegates to reveal the full scope of decades of sexual abuse of minors by Roman Catholic priests.
The Holy See’s delegation, answering questions from an international rights panel for the first time since the scandals broke more than two decades ago, denied allegations of a Vatican cover-up and said it 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.
But Archbishop Tomasi, head of the Holy See’s delegation to the United Nations in Geneva, told Vatican Radio that the report could have been written before the Geneva hearings.
Responding to criticisms in the report of the Church’s opposition to homosexuality, abortion and artificial contraception, he said the United Nations could not ask the Church to change its “non-negotiable” moral teachings.
And he said non-governmental organisations that favour gay marriage had probably pushed the UN committee to reinforce an “ideological line” in its report.