BERLIN — A United Nations committee issued a scathing indictment Wednesday of the Vatican’s handling of cases of child sexual abuse involving clerics, releasing a report that included criticism of church teachings on homosexuality, gender equality and abortion.
The report demanded that the Vatican immediately turn over to criminal investigators any known or suspected abusers and end its “code of silence” by enforcing rules ordering dioceses to report abuse to local authorities. It also called on the Vatican to open its archives on sexual allegations against clerics.
The range of the report appeared to infuriate the Vatican, which last month sent two top officials to appear before the U.N. panel in Geneva for the first public accounting of the Holy See’s handling of abuse allegations. Officials said they are still studying the findings, but responded angrily to what they described as recommendations that are ideologically biased. They said the United Nations has no right to weigh in on church teachings.
“Trying to ask the Holy See to change its teachings is not negotiable,” Silvano Maria Tomasi, the Vatican’s permanent observer at the United Nations in Geneva, told Vatican Radio. He suggested that gay-rights groups had influenced the commission.
The Vatican has been riding a wave of positive publicity since Pope Francis was elected in March. But the report – which is not binding, meaning the United Nations has no way to enforce its recommendations – drew attention to the single largest stain on the Catholic Church’s global image: its handling of allegations of sexual abuse by clerics.
The Vatican had been bracing for the report. After widespread revelations of sexual abuse by clerics in Europe in 2010, the U.N. committee, which is headquartered in Geneva, began an inquiry last year. The Vatican declined the panel’s request to review internal files and data on abuse cases.
The report said the church in some places has “systemically” adopted policies that put children at risk. In some cases, confidentiality has been imposed on child victims and their families as a condition of financial compensation. The panel also said Catholic officials obstructed efforts in certain countries to extend the statute of limitations for criminal or civil cases.
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 concluded.
The panel condemned church doctrine that it considers out of step with the principles of human rights and child welfare. In blunt language, the committee took particular aim at church stances on sexual orientation, reproductive health and gender equality. It delved into details, expressing its concerns, for instance, about the stereotyping of gender roles in Catholic school textbooks.
The committee rejected the Vatican’s longstanding argument that it doesn’t control bishops or their abusive priests.
The panel also essentially held the Vatican responsible for every priest, parish and Catholic school in the world, calling on it to pay compensation to all victims of sexual abuse worldwide, and also to those who labored in Ireland’s notorious Magdalene Laundries, the church-run workhouses where young women were subject to slave labor and often had their out-of-wedlock babies taken from them, The Associated Press reported.
While the Vatican itself didn’t raise an objection to that aspect of the report, other church advocates did.
“I think that the U.N. report describes a monolithic church that does not exist in fact,” Nicholas Cafardi, a U.S. canon lawyer and former chairman of the U.S. bishops’ lay review board that monitored clerical abuse, told The Associated Press. “The pope in Rome cannot control and is certainly not responsible for what happens throughout the Catholic world.”
The committee disagreed.
Benyam Mezmur, a committee member and Ethiopian academic on children’s legal rights, cited among other things a letter from a Vatican cardinal advising Irish bishops to refrain from any policy requiring they report pedophiles to police.
“They keep saying they don’t have the authority, but in the meantime we have had instances of the Holy See trying to influence bishops,” he said in an interview. “You cannot have it both ways. Either you have influence or you don’t.”
The scope of the report illustrated the broad purview of the 10 U.N. committees that monitor adherence to human rights treaties. Their members have done everything from blast Japan for being “deaf” on women’s rights to pointing a finger at Canada for its treatment of the Inuit.
The report from the committee – made up of 18 experts, including child welfare advocates and academics – called on the Vatican to adopt reforms and update the panel by 2017.
Vatican observers said the report will serve as a wake-up call to church authorities that despite the positive response to the new pontiff, the church still needs to do more to address abuse allegations. But delving into doctrine also appeared to push the focus on sex abuse off track.
Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said “anyone bringing attention to the problem (of sex abuse) is moving toward solving it.” But she strongly criticized the United Nations for weaving issues such as contraception and abortion into the report.
“Unfortunately, they weakened it by throwing in the whole kitchen sink,” she said Wednesday. “Those are culture war issues. Sex abuse isn’t a culture war issue – it’s a sin and a crime.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.