GENEVA - The United Nations condemned the Vatican Wednesday for failing to stamp out child abuse and allowing systematic cover-ups, calling on the Church to remove clergy suspected of raping or molesting children.
The Vatican hit back, accusing the world body's child rights watchdog of distorting the facts by failing to take into account fresh efforts to rid the Church of child abusers.
In an unprecedented report for a UN body, the Committee on the Rights of the Child slammed the Vatican for failing to live up to repeated pledges to put its house in order.
"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," it said.
Saying abuse had affected "tens of thousands" of children worldwide, 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".
Committee head Kirsten Sandberg said that despite the Vatican's pledges to adopt a zero tolerance approach, it was in clear breach of the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
"They are in breach of the Convention as up to now, because they haven't done all the things that they should have done," Sandberg told reporters.
The report said the Vatican had failed to acknowledge the extent of abuse, nor taken necessary measures to protect children, and had allowed perpetrators to continue with impunity.
It blasted the transfer of abusers to new parishes within countries, and even across borders, in an attempt to cover up their crimes and remove them from the clutches of justice.
The Vatican's UN envoy, Monsignor Silvano Tomasi, charged that the committee had ignored its child protection reforms.
"It is simply a question of facts, evidence, which cannot be distorted," he told Vatican Radio.
Benedict XVI, pontiff from 2005 to 2013, was the first pope to apologise to abuse victims and call for zero tolerance. Critics, though, said rhetoric outstripped real action.
His successor, Pope Francis, has said Catholics should feel "shame" for abuse and in December created a Church commission to investigate sex crimes, enforce prevention and care for victims.
The committee welcomed that, but said more was needed, including an independent mechanism to address abuse.
"The gap between what we're being told and what's happening in practice is the most surprising thing," said committee member Benyam Mezmur.
"We've made it clear to them that words on paper are not going to deliver children in peril. What ultimately matters is what their actions will mean in reality for children," he added.
The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) hailed the report.
"The quickest way to prevent child sexual violence by Catholic clerics is for Pope Francis to publicly remove all offenders from ministry and harshly punish their colleagues and supervisors who enabled their crimes," SNAP said.
"But like his predecessors, he has refused to take even tiny steps in this direction."
"Now it's up to secular officials to follow the UN's lead and step in to safeguard the vulnerable because Catholic officials are either incapable or unwilling to do so," it added.
The report followed a landmark January hearing where the 18 independent human rights experts from around the globe who make up the UN committee grilled senior Church officials.
Like other signatories of the UN child rights convention, the Vatican agrees to be scrutinised by the panel.
Its last appearance was in 1995, before the abuse issue burst into the spotlight.
The committee criticised the Church for dealing with paedophile priests behind closed doors, and denounced the "code of silence" imposed on clergy, saying it meant cases of abuse or its concealment were rarely reported to police.
Church whistleblowers were meanwhile "ostracised, demoted and fired" and victims made to sign confidentiality clauses if they received compensation, it said.
Referring to Ireland's "Magdalene Laundries" -- Church-run institutions for unmarried girls who got pregnant, finally closed in 1996 -- the committee said the Vatican failed to provide justice despite "slavery-like" conditions and sexual abuse.
It criticised the forced removal for adoption of the Magdalene girls' babies, and similar past programmes in countries such as Spain.
It also urged Rome to consider the impact on young people of its stance on homosexuality, contraception and abortion -- which the Vatican said counted as doctrinal interference.
As well as general comments on the risks to girls of early pregnancy and clandestine abortions, the committee spotlighted the case of a nine-year-old Brazilian who was raped by her stepfather, and whose mother and doctor where excommunicated after she had a termination.
The UN committee's recommendations are non-binding.