GENEVA/VATICAN CITY: 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.
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," the U.N.'s Child Rights watchdog said.
The Holy See now needed to 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 Ireland's Magdalene laundries scandal, where girls were forced to work in church-run institutions, it added.
The exceptionally blunt paper by the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child - the global organisation's most far-reaching critique of the Church hierarchy - followed its public grilling of Vatican officials last month.
"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.
The report called on 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".
The Vatican was expected to issue a statement on the report later on Wednesday.
"It's a wake-up call ...," said Barbara Blaine of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP). "For the safety of children, we hope every head of state on the planet reads this and acts on it."
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 U.N. said a commission the pontiff created 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," the U.N. body said.
Sections of the report also faulted the Vatican for its positions against homosexual activity, contraception and abortion.
A Vatican official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said these parts on topics the Church feels are non negotiable were outside the committee's remit and were "heavily agenda driven and smacking of acute political correctness".
At a public session last month, the committee pushed Vatican delegates to reveal the scope of the decades-long sexual abuse of minors by Roman Catholic priests that Pope Francis called "the shame of the Church".
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.
The report called for an internal investigation of the Magdalene laundries and similar institutions so that whose who were responsible could be prosecuted and that "full compensation be paid to the victims and their families".
It also said priests who had fathered children should be held accountable so they provide for the upkeep of children.
"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.