Pope Francis arrives amid a rain shower Wednesday in St. Peter's Square… (Alessandro Di Meo / European…)
ROME — The Roman Catholic Church has "systematically" protected predator priests, allowing tens of thousands of children to be abused, a United Nations committee said Wednesday in a scathing report that cast the first shadow over Pope Francis' honeymoon period as pontiff.
The panel called on the Vatican to remove all suspects from their posts immediately and to open its confidential archives "to hold abusers accountable."
"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 says.
The Vatican, which signed the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990, has "consistently placed the preservation of the reputation of the church and the protection of the perpetrators above children's best interests," says the report, accusing the Vatican of transferring abusive priests to new parishes where many have continued to abuse children, and of "humiliating" the families of victims into silence.
The report also challenges a series of core Catholic teachings, including views on homosexuality, contraception and blanket opposition to abortion, singling out the church's sanctioning of a doctor who performed a life-saving abortion on a 9-year-old girl in Brazil in 2009.
The Holy See's ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, denounced the report, calling it "surprising" and full of "incorrect" statements, and alleging that the U.N. had ignored steps taken by the Vatican in recent years to root out abuse.
In an interview with Vatican Radio, Tomasi suggested that nongovernmental organizations that oppose the church's positions on homosexuality and gay marriage had influenced the U.N. report, giving it an ideological slant.
Addressing the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child last month, Tomasi said the Vatican had no responsibility for abusers because "priests are citizens of their own states, and they fall under the jurisdiction of their own country."
But the report disagrees, telling the Vatican that because priests are "bound by obedience to the pope" in canon law, the Vatican is accountable for their conduct.
The report, released by the United Nations committee in Geneva, implores the Vatican to oblige its priests and bishops to take all reports about abuse to the police and end what it terms a "code of silence" under which whistle-blowers were "ostracized, demoted and fired."
As a first step, the report calls on the Vatican to appoint representatives of victims groups to the commission created by Francis in December to investigate abuse, and asks the Vatican to provide a progress report by 2017.
Although the committee's recommendations are nonbinding, they are a challenge to the pope, whose popularity has soared since he was elected last March, in part with the assumption that he would reform the Vatican.
"Pope Francis has already missed opportunities to assert his authority to reverse the church's damaging policies over clerical abuse, and unless he responds positively and quickly to the demands of the committee, he risks history judging his whole papacy a failure," said Keith Porteous Wood, the executive director of Britain's National Secular Society, which gave evidence to the committee.
However, Gerard O'Connell, a Vatican analyst at the website Vatican Insider in Rome, suggested that the situation was no longer as grim as that depicted by the United Nations. "The U.N. has identified many problems but, I believe, has not distinguished between past practice and the reality today," he said.
For instance, he said, the Vatican may not accept "legal responsibility for whatever a priest does in any country in the world … but the Vatican does insist that bishops have a mandate to protect children and that they can be held responsible for not implementing that mandate."
O'Connell added: "I believe the pope's new commission will focus on this issue of bishops' accountability."
Kington is a special correspondent.