By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA (Reuters) - The United Nations watchdog on torture urged the Vatican on Friday to cooperate with civil authorities in prosecuting all cases of suspected sexual abuse by pedophile priests and to set up its own individual complaints mechanism.
Rape and sex crimes can amount to torture or cruel treatment and the Vatican must prevent and punish such abuses, the U.N. Committee against Torture said. It had already found that sexual abuse amounted to torture in some 50 countries, officials said.
"The Holy See says sexual abuse is not torture. Well, sexual abuse, including rape, can be torture, or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment," Felice Gaer, a committee member, told Reuters Television. "We say whether it's cruel treatment or torture depends on the facts of the case."
It was the second time this year that a U.N. human rights body has criticized how Roman Catholic officials have handled the decades-long sexual abuse of minors by priests.
Victims accuse the Vatican of still protecting abusers and covering up sex crimes, failing to punish perpetrators, refer them to the authorities or provide adequate compensation.
The Vatican told the committee this month that the Church's accusers were "fossilized in the past" when public attitudes were different. Archbishop Silvano Tomasi said the Church had developed model child protection policies over the last decade that other states and institutions might emulate.
The U.N. Committee against Torture, which examined the Holy See's record, said Vatican officials should monitor priests and "stop and sanction" conduct that violates the U.N. treaty against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.
It rejected the Vatican's position that the Holy See has jurisdiction only in the tiny Vatican City State.
"It is very important to know that the Convention applies outside of the four corners of the Vatican City State. That it is very important for the Vatican to take steps, they haven't been taking, to prevent many grave incidents, particularly regarding sexual abuse of minors including in some cases grave abuse and rape," said Gaer, an American lawyer.
Any priest suspected of sexual abuse should be immediately suspended pending investigation and should not be transferred to another diocese to avoid punishment, the U.N. committee said.
The Vatican should "take effective measures to ensure that allegations received by its officials concerning violations of the Convention (against Torture) are communicated to the proper civil authorities to facilitate their investigation and prosecution of alleged perpetrators".
"For too long, the Vatican has been able to deny and deflect attention from its role in enabling, perpetuating, and covering-up these serious crimes around the globe. But the increasing attention international human rights bodies are paying to this crisis shows the Vatican's days of impunity are numbered," Barbara Blaine, president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said in a statement.
The U.N. committee, composed of 10 independent experts, said that the Holy See had a responsibility under the treaty that extended to its officials working worldwide.
It voiced concern at the case of Father Joseph Jayapaul, a priest formally accused of sexually abusing youth in Minnesota in the United States, who has returned to his native India.
It called on the Vatican to investigate Polish Archbishop Joseph Wesolowski and ensure that if warranted he is criminally prosecuted or extradited to face charges of alleged abuse in the Dominican Republic.
Wesolowski was recalled last August to the Vatican, which said a month later that it would cooperate with authorities investigating him on suspicion of pedophilia.
The U.N. committee voiced deep concern at reports by many victims that they have been unable to obtain redress and at a "refusal" by four religious orders that ran the Magdalene laundries in Ireland to contribute to a compensation fund.
Women, many unmarried mothers, sent to the laundries were made to work in slave-like conditions, and were often subject to cruel and degrading treatment as well as abuse, the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child said in February.
In a statement on Friday, the Holy See said that the U.N. torture committee had not found it in violation of the treaty and had recognized its "important efforts to prevent sexual abuse against minors and others".
"The Holy See condemns sex abuse as a serious crime and a grave violation of human dignity," it said, adding that it would
give "serious consideration" to the U.N. recommendations.
Miguel Hurtado, a Spaniard sexually abused as a youth by his local priest, welcomed the latest U.N. probe and findings.
"They have said that the church has to be more transparent, that they have to report child abuse to the authorities, that bishops who cover up sex crimes have to be fired said that victims have a right to compensation," Hurtado told Reuters Television. "That's what we have been saying for decades."
(additional reporting by Morade Azzouz; editing by Ralph Boulton)