VATICAN CITY – In his last two years as head of the Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI defrocked nearly 400 priests for raping and molesting children, more than twice as many as the two years that preceded a 2010 explosion of sex abuse cases in Europe and beyond, according to a document obtained Friday by The Associated Press and an analysis of Vatican statistics.
The data — 260 priests defrocked in 2011 and 124 in 2012, a total of 384 — represented a dramatic increase over the 171 priests defrocked in 2008 and 2009.
It was the first compilation of the number of priests forcibly removed for sex abuse by the Vatican’s in-house procedures — and a canon lawyer said the real figure is likely far higher, since the numbers don’t include sentences meted out by diocesan courts.
The spike started a year after the Vatican decided to double the statute of limitations on the crime, enabling victims who were in their late 30s to report abuse committed against them when they were children.
The Vatican has actually made some data public year by year in its annual reports. But an internal Vatican document prepared to help the Holy See defend itself before a U.N. committee this week in Geneva compiled the statistics over the course of several years. Analysis of the raw data cited in that document, which was obtained by the AP, confirmed the figures.
Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican’s U.N. ambassador in Geneva, referred to just one of the statistics in the course of eight hours of often pointed criticism and questioning Thursday from the U.N. human rights committee. He said 418 new child sex abuse cases were reported to the Vatican in 2012.
The Vatican initially said the AP report seemed to be a misinterpretation of the 418 figure. However, Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, later issued a correction based on confirmation of the AP calculations by the Vatican’s former sex crimes prosecutor, Monsignor Charles Scicluna.
The Vatican’s annual report contains a wealth of information about the activities of its various offices, including the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which handles sex abuse cases. Although public, the reports are not readily available or sold outside Rome and are usually found in Vatican offices or Catholic university libraries.
An AP review of a decade’s worth of the reference books shows a remarkable evolution in the Holy See’s in-house procedures to discipline pedophiles since 2001, when the Vatican ordered bishops to send cases of all credibly accused priests to Rome for review.
Before becoming pope, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger took action after determining that bishops around the world weren’t following church policy and putting accused clerics on trial in church tribunals. Instead, bishops routinely moved problem priests from parish to parish rather than subject them to canonical trials — or turn them over to police.
For centuries, the church has had its own in-house procedures to deal with priests who sexually abuse children. One of the chief accusations against the Vatican from victims is that bishops put the church’s procedures ahead of civil law enforcement by suggesting that victims keep accusations quiet while they were dealt with internally.
The maximum penalty for a priest convicted by a church tribunal is essentially losing his job: being defrocked, or removed from the clerical state. There are no prison terms and nothing to prevent an offender from raping again.
The Vatican insists nothing in its church process prevented victims from going to police.
According to the 2001 norms Ratzinger pushed through and subsequently updated, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith reviews each case sent to Rome and then tells bishops how to proceed, either with an administrative process against the priest if the evidence is overwhelming or a church trial. At every step of the way the priest is allowed to defend himself.
A total of 555 priests were defrocked from 2008 to 2012, according to the Vatican figures, though data from 2010 was not included.
The Rev. Davide Cito, a canon lawyer at Rome’s Pontifical Holy Cross University who has helped prosecute abuse cases for the Vatican, said the real number may be far higher. The reason? The figures in the Vatican’s annual report only refer to the outcome of cases sent to the pope.
Those are the slam-dunk cases where there was so much evidence against the priest that a church trial wasn’t necessary, or cases where the priest himself asked to be relieved of his celibacy vow and position as a prelate because of the accusations.
But individual dioceses can also remove priests from the clerical state as the result of a canonical trial in which the priest is found guilty, Cito said.
“There can also be more without the intervention of the pope,” he said. “They don’t tell us the number, so there’s no way to know.”
Victims groups said the spike in cases appeared to be the result of victims gaining the strength to come forward and denounce abusive priests. They demanded the Vatican start sanctioning bishops who covered up for the abuse, too.
“Here’s the number Catholics should remember: zero. That’s how many Catholic supervisors have been punished, worldwide, for enabling and hiding horrific clergy sex crimes,” said David Clohessy of SNAP, the main U.S. victims group. “The pope must start defrocking clerics who cover up sex crimes, not just clerics who commit them.”
The Congregation started reporting numbers only in 2005, which is where the spreadsheet prepared for the Vatican delegation in Geneva starts.
In 2005, the Congregation authorized bishops to launch church trials against 21 accused clerics, and reported that its appeals court had handled two cases. It didn’t say what the verdicts were, according to the annual reports cited by the spreadsheet.
In 2006, the number of canonical trials authorized doubled to 43 and eight appeals cases were heard. And for the first time, the Congregation revealed publicly the number of cases reported to it: 362, though that figure included a handful of nonabuse related canonical crimes.
A similar number of cases were reported in 2007 — 365 — but again the Congregation didn’t specify how many were abuse-related. Vatican officials, however, have said that it received between 300-400 cases a year in the years following the 2002 explosion of sex abuse cases in the U.S.
By 2008, the tone of the Vatican’s entry had changed. Ratzinger, by then Pope Benedict XVI, traveled to the scandal-hit United States that year and was quoted in the annual report as telling reporters en route that he was “mortified” by the scale of abuse and simply couldn’t comprehend “how priests could fail in such a way.”
That year’s entry was also notable for another reason: For the first time, an official Vatican document made clear that nothing in the church process precluded victims from reporting abuse to police.
There was also another first in 2008, a critical year as abuse lawsuits in the U.S. naming the Holy See as a defendant were heating up. For the first time, the Vatican revealed the number of priests who had been defrocked: 68.
A year later, the number of defrocked priests rose to 103. The total for the two years, 2008 and 2009, was 171.
Another milestone in the sex abuse saga came in 2010, with hundreds of cases reported in the media across Europe and beyond. Some 527 cases were reported to the Congregation alone. No figures were given that year for the number of defrocked priests; instead, new church laws were put in place to extend the statute of limitations from 10 years after the victim’s 18th birthday to 20 years.
By 2011, with the new extended statute of limitations and the Vatican norms codified, the number of defrocked priests rose dramatically: 260 in one year alone, while 404 new cases of child abuse were reported. In addition, lesser penalties were imposed on 419 other priests for abuse-related crimes.
In 2012, the last year for which statistics are available, the number of defrockings dropped to 124, with another 418 new cases reported.