UN Report Raises Scathing Criticisms Of Vatican

The United Nations watchdog for children's rights has accused the Vatican of caring more about its own reputation and members of the clergy than the victims of sexual abuse. The group is calling for the Vatican to immediately remove any priests suspected of sexually abusing children.

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And I'm Melissa Block. The Vatican is angered by a U.N. report issued today that looks into the church's record on child sexual abuse. A U.N. committee on the rights of children is demanding the Roman Catholic Church turn over archives relating to how it dealt with priests. It accuses the Vatican of policies that effectively allowed priests to rape and molest tens of thousands of children worldwide.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli joins me from Rome to talk about that. And Sylvia, tell us more about just what this report says.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Well, it expressed grave concern that the Holy See has not acknowledged the extent of the crimes committed by priests, and has not taken the necessary steps to address cases of child sex abuse. The report came out just a few weeks after Vatican officials were grilled for an entire day in Geneva on the Holy See's implementation of the International Treaty on the Rights of the Child.

The report also urges the Vatican to immediately remove all known or suspected child abusers from the clergy, and turn them over to the police. And in a key point, the committee rejects the Vatican's longstanding claim that it does not control bishops or their abusive priests. The report claims the Holy See is responsible for implementation of the international treaty it signed; not just in Vatican City, but around the world as the supreme power of the Catholic Church.

BLOCK: Now, Sylvia, this report from the U.N. also went beyond the issue of child sex abuse. It also called for changes in traditional church attitudes. What, specifically, did it say?

POGGIOLI: Well, the committee severely criticized the Vatican for its attitudes toward homosexuality, contraception and abortion, and urged it to review its policies to ensure children's rights and their access to health care - including abortion, for example, in a case to save the life of a young mother.

In response, the Vatican said the report was distorted, unfair and ideologically slanted. It accused the committee of interfering in religious freedom and trying to dictate changes to the Catholic Church's - what it calls nonnegotiable moral teachings. The Vatican ambassador to the U.N., Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, went so far as to say that nongovernmental organizations that favor gay marriage - which the Vatican opposes - had probably influenced the committee to reinforce what he called an ideological line in the report.

BLOCK: Let's talk about the role of Pope Francis here. He has called the sexual abuse of children the shame of the church. But has he taken any concrete action to punish sex offenders within the clergy?

POGGIOLI: Well, last September, Pope Francis announced the creation of a Vatican Commission on Child Protection, and Care of Victims of Abuse. But very few details have been released. The Vatican position has been that bishops must report offenders to civil authorities, where required by law. But for example, just last week, Italian bishops declined, saying it's not their responsibility; it's up to families or school officials, or whatever.

Now, however indignant the Vatican reaction to today's report, it certainly puts pressure on Pope Francis to move more decisively and make good on the church pledges to recommend best practices to fight sex abuse. And the whole issue highlights, you know, the anomaly of the church structure and who, in the end, is accountable and when is an offense serious enough to prompt a pope to remove a bishop.

Up to now, speaking out publicly in favor of women's ordination, for example, has triggered removal. Not so for covering up sex abuse of minors.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli in Rome. Sylvia, thanks so much.

POGGIOLI: Thank you.

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