The United Nations watchdog on torture urged the Vatican yesterday to cooperate with civil authorities in prosecuting all cases of suspected sexual abuse by paedophile 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 UN 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 TV. “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 UN human rights body has criticised how Roman Catholic officials have handled the decades-long sexual abuse of minors by priests.

The Holy See says sexual abuse is not torture

The Vatican told the committee this month that the Church’s accusers were “fossilised 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 UN Committee against Torture, which examined the Holy See’s record, said Vatican officials should monitor priests and “stop and sanction” conduct that violates the UN 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 investig-ation and should not be transferred to another diocese to avoid punishment, the UN committee said.

Composed of 10 independent experts, it said that the Holy See had a responsibility under the treaty that extended to its officials working worldwide.

It 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. Many unmarried mothers sent to the laundries were made to work in slave-like conditions, and were often subjected to cruel and degrading treatment as well as abuse.

In a statement yesterday, the Holy See said that the UN torture committee had not found it in violation of the treaty and had recognised its “important efforts to prevent sexual abuse against minors and others”.