VATICAN CITY -- Pope Francis came under new pressure Wednesday to punish bishops who covered up for pedophile priests when a U.N. human rights panel accused the Vatican of systematically protecting its reputation instead of looking out for the safety of children.
In a scathing report that thrilled victims and stunned the Vatican, the United Nations committee said the Holy See maintained a "code of silence" that enabled priests to sexually abuse tens of thousands of children worldwide over decades with impunity.
Among other things, the panel called on the Vatican to immediately remove all priests known or suspected to be child molesters, open its archives on abusers and the bishops who covered up for them, and turn the abuse cases over to law enforcement authorities for investigation and prosecution.
The committee largely brushed aside the Vatican's claims that it has already instituted new safeguards, and it accused the Roman Catholic Church of still harboring criminals.
"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 panel said.
The stinging language surprised the Vatican and put it in damage-control mode, with officials strongly defending the church and accusing the committee of allowing itself to be swayed by pro-gay ideologues. The Vatican, which defended itself at a U.N. committee hearing last month, said the panel ignored the measures the Holy See has already taken to protect children.
"I'm tempted to say that the text was probably written ahead of time," said the Vatican's U.N. ambassador, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi.
Nevertheless, the report puts pressure on Francis to take decisive action after a year in which he has largely let the abuse portfolio fall by the wayside as he tackled other pressing issues, such as reforming the Vatican bureaucracy.
The Vatican announced in December that the new pope would create a commission to study how to prevent abuse and help victims, but no firm details about its makeup or scope have been released since.
And critically, the Vatican has yet to sanction any bishop for having covered up for an abusive priest, even though more than a decade has passed since the scandal exploded in the U.S. and countless law enforcement investigations around the world made it clear the role bishops played.
Vatican officials have suggested that under Francis, this might soon change.
The report was issued by the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child, an 18-member panel that includes academics, sociologists and child development specialists from around the globe.
Its job is to monitor compliance with the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, a treaty the Vatican ratified in 1990. The treaty calls for signatories to protect children from harm. Only three countries have failed to ratify it: the U.S., Somalia and South Sudan.
Last month, the Vatican was subjected to a blistering daylong grilling by the U.N. committee, which then produced its final observations on Wednesday.
"The committee expresses 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," the report concluded.
At a news conference in Geneva, committee chairwoman Kirsten Sandberg ticked off some of the core findings: that bishops moved pedophile priests from parish to parish rather than reporting them to police, that known abusers are still in contact with children, and that the Vatican has never required bishops to report abusers to police.
"This report gives hope to the hundreds of thousands of deeply wounded and still suffering clergy sex abuse victims across the world," said Barbara Blaine, president of the main U.S. victims group, SNAP.
"Now it's up to secular officials to follow the U.N.'s lead and step in to safeguard the vulnerable because Catholic officials are either incapable or unwilling to do so."
Critically, the committee rejected the Vatican's longstanding argument that it doesn't control bishops or their abusive priests.
The panel 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.
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," said Nicholas Cafardi, a U.S. canon lawyer and former chairman of the U.S. bishops' lay review board that monitored clerical abuse. "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 committee's recommendations are non-binding and there is no enforcement mechanism. But it asked the Vatican to comply and report back by 2017.
The recommendations extended far beyond child sexual abuse in ways that conflict with church teachings.
For example, the committee urged the Vatican to amend canon law to allow abortions on children in some circumstances, such as to protect the life of the young mother. It asked the Holy See to ensure that sex education, including access to information about contraception, is mandatory in Catholic schools. And it called on the Vatican to condemn discrimination against homosexual children or youngsters raised by gay couples.
Tomasi accused the committee of adopting a pro-gay "ideological line."