By Naomi O'Leary
ROME, Feb 28 (Reuters) - On the final day of Pope Benedict's papacy, a victim support group asked the United Nations to censure the Vatican for failing to protect children from sexual abuse by Roman Catholic clergy.
Speaking at a press conference metres from the walls of the Vatican City on Thursday, the head of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) said his group had made a formal submission to the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child.
"It's a long submission of 30 pages based on government reports by five different nations," David Clohessy told reporters, surrounded by photographs of children he said were members of his organisation, at the age they were abused.
"We hope that the U.N. speaks out very forcefully and says that the Vatican is in violation of the treaty that it agreed to honour."
The SNAP submission argues that the Holy See has violated the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, which it signed in 1990, on four counts including a failure to cooperate with criminal investigations and failing to protect children.
The crisis over the abuse of children by clergy, which has bankrupted several U.S. dioceses, cost the Church billions in compensation claims worldwide and haunted it throughout Benedict's papacy, has returned as cardinals prepare to enter a conclave to elect the next pontiff.
Catholic activists have petitioned U.S. cardinal Roger Mahony, who shielded priests known to be abusers from legal scrutiny in the 1980s, to exclude himself from the election of the man Catholics consider Christ's vicar on earth.
Clohessy called on the next pontiff, expected to be in office by March 26, immediately to discipline bishops who have protected predatory priests in their dioceses.
"This is the largest religious institution on the planet, with immense power centred right here. With a stroke of a pen the pope could make an enormous difference," Clohessy said.
Sexual abuse cases began coming to light in the 1980s and became a major crisis in 2002, after reports in the U.S. media. When he was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Benedict was appointed by Pope John Paul to lead the Vatican office charged with investigating abuse.
As pope, Benedict did more than any previous pontiff to address the issue, meeting victims several times and apologising for abuse. However, Clohessy said this did not go far enough.
"He had both the power and the knowledge to make an enormous difference, and we believe he refused." (Reporting by Naomi O'Leary; Editing by Kevin Liffey)