A UN watchdog has called for an investigation of the Magdalene laundries so that those responsible for abusing children could be prosecuted and to allow "full compensation be paid to the victims and their families".

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child said the Catholic Church had not yet taken measures to prevent a repeat of cases such as the Magdalene scandal, where girls were arbitrarily placed in conditions of forced labour.

In an unprecedented and scathing report, the UN also demanded the Vatican "immediately remove" all clergy who are known or suspected child abusers and turn them over to civil authorities.

The committee said the Holy See should also hand over its archives on sexual abuse of tens of thousands of children so that culprits, as well as "those who concealed their crimes", could be held accountable.

The watchdog's exceptionally blunt paper, the most far-reaching critique of the church hierarchy by the world body, followed its public grilling of Vatican officials last month.

"The Committee is gravely concerned that the Holy See has not acknowledged the extent of the crimes committed, has not taken the necessary measures to address cases of child sexual abuse and to protect children, and has adopted policies and practices which have led to the continuation of the abuse by and the impunity of the perpetrators," the report said.

The Vatican has said the UN is interfering with church teachings after the report criticised its stance on homosexuality, contraception and abortion.

It also said the church was committed to protecting children from abuse.

However, it said it will submit the UN report to "thorough study and examination".

A commission created by Pope Francis in December should investigate all cases of child sexual abuse "as well as the conduct of the Catholic hierarchy in dealing with them," the report said.

Abusers had been moved from parish to parish or other countries "in an attempt to cover-up such crimes," it added.

"Due to a code of silence imposed on all members of the clergy under penalty of excommunication, cases of child sexual abuse have hardly ever been reported to the law enforcement authorities in the countries where such crimes occurred," the UN body said.

At a public session last month, the committee pushed Vatican delegates to reveal the scope of the decades-long sexual abuse of minors by Roman Catholic priests that Pope Francis called "the shame of the church".

The Holy See's delegation, answering questions from an international rights panel for the first time since the scandals broke more than two decades ago, denied allegations of a Vatican cover-up and said it had set clear guidelines to protect children from predator priests.

Justice for Magdalenes Research welcomes UN call

The group that promoted the case of the Magdalene women at the UN has welcomed the call on the Catholic Church to investigate, and if appropriate, punish, the religious personnel who worked in them and in similar institutions around the world.

A  spokesperson for Justice for Magdalenes Research has said the four religious orders that ran Magdalene Laundries in Ireland have refused to accept what they call "unanimous survivor testimony that they were imprisoned and subjected to forced labour and torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment". 

She said that none of the orders have offered an apology to Magdalene survivors, or contributed to the compensation fund established for them by the State.