GENEVA (Reuters) - The Vatican told critics of its sexual abuse record on Tuesday that it had developed model child protection policies over the last decade and that its accusers should not stay "fossilized in the past" when attitudes were different.
Addressing the United Nations Committee on Torture, the papal ambassador in Geneva admitted the Roman Catholic Church had in the past protected priests who molested minors but had not done so in years because it understood the issue better.
Archbishop Silforget vio Tomasi was responding to questions from the committee, which grilled him on the Vatican's record on Monday and called for a permanent investigation system to end what it called a "climate of impunity" within the Church.
Groups representing victims of clerical sexual abuse said after Monday's hearing that predator priests were still being moved to other parishes, sometimes to other countries, to protect them against possible criminal charges.
Referring to that accusation, Tomasi said: "We must not be fossilized in the past." The "culture of the time" in the 1960s and 1970s viewed such offenders as people who could be treated psychologically rather than as criminals, he said.
"Unfortunately, that was a mistake, as experience has shown. We have to appreciate the evolution of the culture and ... the enormous amount of work that has been done in 10 years by an institution called the Catholic Church."
Barbara Blaine, founder and president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), accused Tomasi of dodging the issue by claiming the Church simply went along with what was the common view of experts decades ago.
"That is ludicrous. Everyone knew that raping children was a crime and it should have been reported to the police," she said.
"They are not committing themselves to remove the sexual predators from the priesthood or from ministry. They are not punishing the bishops who conceal and cover up the sex crimes."
The sexual abuse scandal has haunted the Catholic Church for over two decades but became a major issue in the United States about 10 years ago. Since then it has also disgraced local churches in Ireland, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and other countries and badly tarnished the Church's image.
Another U.N. committee, reviewing compliance with a convention on children's rights, accused the Vatican in February of systematically turning a blind eye to decades of abuse and attempting to cover up sex crimes committed by priests.
The Vatican called its report unfair and biased. Its delegation appeared better prepared for questions this time and the three-hour session passed without polemics.
In his concluding remarks, Tomasi called sexual abuse of children "a worldwide plague and scourge" that the Church has been effectively fighting for the past 10 years.
"I would even go as far to say that this engagement (by the Church) has been something worth probably looking at for good practices other institutions and states could copy."
He said a total of 3,420 credible accusations of sexual abuse by priests had been referred to the Vatican in the past 10 years and 824 clerics defrocked. The Church in the United States has paid $2.5 billion in compensation to victims since 1960.
Asked about a Vatican ambassador accused of sexual abuse in the Dominican Republic, Tomasi said Archbishop Jozef Wesolowski would be tried at the Vatican but his case was delayed because not all the necessary documents had arrived yet.
Tomasi agreed with the committee that sexual abuse of children was a form of torture while adding that abortion, which the Catholic Church firmly opposes, was also torture.
Catholic Voices USA, a group defending Church positions, accused committee members of equating Catholic opposition to abortion with torture in their questions to the Vatican.
The committee is due to issue a final report on May 23 on Vatican compliance with the anti-torture convention, which it signed as an sovereign state with U.N. observer status.
Tom Heneghan reported from Paris; additional reporting by Philip Pullella in Rome; Writing by Tom Heneghan; Editing by Mark Heinrich