US authorities lax on clerical sex abuse cases, says UN committee

VATICAN CITY (REUTERS) - A United Nations committee has accused legal authorities in the United States of failing to fully pursue cases of child sex abuse in religious groups, an issue especially troubling the Roman Catholic church.

The Committee on the Rights of the Child wrote that it was "deeply concerned" to find widespread sexual abuse by clerics and staff of religious institutions and "a lack of measures... to properly investigate cases and prosecute them".

After years of legal battles, the Los Angeles archdiocese bowed to a court order last month and released 12,000 pages of files showing its former head, Cardinal Roger Mahony, sent accused abusers out of state to avoid justice in the 1980s.

"The committee is deeply concerned at information of sexual abuse committed by clerics and leading members of certain faith-based organisations and religious institutions on a massive and long-term scale," said the report, which gave no details. It said it also found a "lack of measures taken by (US legal authorities) to properly investigate cases and prosecute those accused" and urged them to order law enforcement officials to step up efforts to uncover and bring charges against abusers.

Britain's National Secular Society, which drew attention on Monday to the little-noticed report, said it hoped the Catholic pope to be elected next month would open Church files to help prosecute as yet undiscovered cases of clerical sexual abuse.

The scandal of predator priests has haunted the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI, who will resign on Feb 28. The Pope has apologised for the abuse and met victims in several countries, but cases and damning internal files are still coming to light.

The National Secular Society, which campaigns at the UN against privileges for religious groups, accused Benedict of hushing up abuse cases and obstructing justice.

The abuse crisis is expected to be among the issues cardinals will discuss before they enter the Sistine Chapel in mid-March to elect a new pope, but the secrecy of their consultations means it is not clear how much of a role it will play in their choice.

The church and its insurance companies in the US have already paid more than US$2 billion (S$2.4 billion) in damages to victims.