LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Catholic international aid charities have pledged zero-tolerance for sexual exploitation by their employees, as a sex abuse scandal affecting one of Britain’s largest charities is now latching onto U.N. aid agencies.

Andrew MacLeod, the former Chief of Operations of the UN Emergency Coordination Center for the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, estimated in The Sun – a British tabloid – that tens of thousand of people have been raped by UN employees, and the international body employs at least 3,000 pedophiles.

“There are tens of thousands of aid workers around the world with pedophile tendencies, but if you wear a UNICEF T-shirt nobody will ask what you’re up to,” MacLeod told the newspaper.

“You have the impunity to do whatever you want,” he said. “It is endemic across the aid industry across the world.”

(The United Nations has disputed Macleod’s methodology, and stated it has a zero-tolerance policy on sexual abuse by staff.)

The scandal began last week when an investigative series by The Times, an English newspaper, revealed Oxfam staff used prostitutes in “Caligula”-like sex parties while providing aid in Haiti in 2011. The newspaper alleges some of those prostitutes may have been underaged.

Since the initial report, several agencies have been caught up in the scandal. IRIN News reported that in 2004 the man at the center of the Haiti story, Roland van Hauwermeiren, had been pushed out of his job as Liberia country director for the British charity Merlin, a medical group now merged with Save the Children.

Doctors Without Borders issued a statement saying it has taken action on 24 cases of sexual harassment or abuse among its 40,000 employees last year, and dismissed 19 people in the process.

World Vision, an evangelical Christian aid agency, denied press reports its staff had been involved in a sex scandal after the Haitian earthquake.

“World Vision’s extensive investigations into these issues revealed that those involved in sexual exploitation were not World Vision staff. They were community volunteers and cash-for-work beneficiaries themselves,” the organization said in a statement.

The Times also revealed that another of the persons accused of sexual misconduct later began working for Catholic aid agency CAFOD in the Philippines, after leaving Oxfam. (He was suspended until the case could be fully investigated.)

RELATED: UK Catholic aid agency suspends staff member implicated in Oxfam sex scandal

Caritas Internationalis, the umbrella organization for Catholic aid agencies around the world, issued a statement reaffirming the organization has zero tolerance for any sexual exploitation and abuse.

Michel Roy, the Secretary General of Caritas Internationalis, said the reports about the actions of some Oxfam staff in Haiti are “tragic and disturbing.”

“You can’t ensure that such things will never happen but systems and procedures must be in place to reduce the risk to as low as possible, with any suspicion reported and acted upon,” he said.

Roy said Caritas Internationalis has a code of conduct for staff, and that the organization has been setting up “robust systems” for responding to allegations of misconduct, adding that these will “complement” the safeguarding systems of Caritas’s member federations, which are independent.

“Caritas Internationalis is committed to working across the humanitarian sector to ensure there is better staff vetting,” Roy added.

Staff vetting requires cooperation and trust between aid agencies. Many NGOs work in disaster areas and fund short-term projects, meaning staffing can be fluid, with workers moving from agency to agency. Different aid groups often must rely heavily on the recommendation letters received from previous employers when making hiring decisions.

This trust can break down if agencies have different standards for staff conduct – at the time of the Haiti earthquake, Oxfam had no policies forbidding staff from using prostitutes, for example – or if agencies routinely promise good recommendations to ease problem employees out the door with the fewest hassles. (CAFOD was not informed by Oxfam of any allegations against the suspended employee.)

Aid workers in the field also say oversight can be poor, and a “don’t rock the boat” attitude can take hold among the staff.

“There’s lots of excitement, lots of alcohol and no real structure. Head office is a long way away,” an Irish former UN staff member told the Irish Times.

“If someone has been found guilty of an offense, they shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near children or the field. They should never work for an international organization again,” he told the newspaper. “But NGOs need skilled staff… it can be hard to get people for these jobs.”

In the United States, Catholic Relief Services – the international aid agency of the U.S. bishops and a member of Caritas Internationalis – told Crux in a statement they have “rigorous systems in place to ensure our staff can report protection concerns, and those reports trigger prompt investigation and immediate action.”

This includes:

  • A whistleblower system that is available to all staff who receive training on how to use it.
  • A strict code of conduct and protection policy that places the highest priority on protecting the people we serve.
  • A protection training course that all CRS employees (and partners) must complete at the start of their employment with CRS.

The statement said CRS staff “hold themselves to the highest professional standards as we work in some of the most volatile situations.”

It added CRS’s hiring process includes “thorough reference checks and to the extent possible, background checks.”

“Any violation of our policies or code of conduct results in immediate and appropriate action, including termination,” the statement concludes.

Currently, the British government’s Charity Commission is working with UK-based overseas development agencies to strengthen cross-sector information sharing and protection of vulnerable people.

Yet the scale of the scandal is still not known, and every day seems to ensnare yet another agency – and the international scope of the problem means an international solution may be needed, which is harder to achieve than at the national level.

If the lack of oversight and accountability mixed with a cultural aversion to airing dirty laundry sounds familiar to Catholics, others have noticed, too.

“We are looking at a problem on the scale of the [clerical abuse scandal in the] Catholic Church — if not bigger,” MacLeod told The Sun.