Pope Benedict XVI defrocked nearly 400 priests for raping and molesting children in his final two years before stepping down as the head of the Catholic Church in 2013, documents obtained by The Associated Press reveal.
According to the data, 260 priests were deprived of their ecclesiastical status in 2012 and 124 in 2012 – more than a twofold increase over the 171 priests defrocked in the preceding two years.
The figures represent the first time the Vatican has provided statistics on the number of priests to be removed for sex abuse as a result of the Church’s in-house procedures. A canon lawyer, however, told AP the real future is likely higher, as the statistics obtained Friday do not include the number of sentences handed down by diocesan courts.
The Vatican initially accused AP of misrepresenting the data, claiming “information diffused this evening by the Associated Press appears to be based on an incorrect reading of data published in the volume.”
The Church later did an about face, however, with Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi confirming that the AP figures were correct.
The internal Vatican document, comprising statistics compiled over several years, was intended to help the Holy See defend itself before a United Nations committee in Geneva this week.
On Thursday, the Catholic Church was publicly dressed down for its handling of sex-abuse scandals around the world, facing harsh questioning over its implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which the Holy See signed on to in 1990.
The UN committee's main human rights investigator, Sara Oviedo, was unrelenting in questioning why abusive priests were frequently transferred to different dioceses or countries rather than turning them in to police.
Another panel member, Hiranthi Wijemanne, echoed Oviedo’s sentiments regarding an alleged cover-up: "Why is there no mandatory reporting to a country's judicial authorities when crimes occur? Taking actions against perpetrators is part of justice.”
Monsignor Charles Scicluna, the Vatican’s former chief sex crimes prosecutor, denied that the Holy See attempted to sweep matters of sexual abuse under the rug.
"Our guideline has always been that domestic law of the countries where the churches operate needs to be followed," he said.
Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, however, claimed the church had scant legal grounds to punish clergy and church members for such offenses.
"[Priests] are citizens of their own states and fall under the jurisdiction of their own country," he said.
The Holy See has successfully argued in court that the Vatican, as a sovereign nation, is immune from lawsuits and the Pope is not responsible for acts committed by members of the clergy.
Scicluna acknowledged, however, that the church had “spiritual,” if not legal jurisdiction over its staff.
The Holy See’s position prompted anger from victims’ rights groups.
“Two high-ranking Catholic officials today basically told a United Nations panel that the Vatican has little real power to stop bishops from hiding clergy sex crimes," the Wall Street Journal cites Mary Caplan, of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, as saying in a statement.
"We're very saddened that such a huge and powerful church bureaucracy continues to pretend it is powerless over its own officials."
Experts on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church say that the spike in defrockings could both be linked to the 2010 media frenzy which saw a large number of cases reported in Europe and elsewhere, as well as Pope Benedict XVI’s more aggressive pursuit of what he called “filth” in the church.
In 2001, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, arranged for all abuse cases to be sent to his office at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome. At the helm of the CDF, he made reportedly included Internet offenses against children into canon law, included child abuse offenses for all minors under the age of 18, implemented a case by case waiving of the statute of limitations on individual cases, and facilitated the dismissal of offenders.
The vast majority of cases, however, never go to court, often because the statute of limitations has expired.
On Wednesday, Pope Francis derided sexual abuse as “the shame of the church” during his daily mass.
"But are we ashamed? So many scandals that I do not want to mention individually, but all of us know...We know where they are! Scandals, some who charged a lot of money....The shame of the Church,” he said.
"But are we all ashamed of those scandals, of those failings of priests, bishops, laity?” he continued. Where was the Word of God in those scandals; where was the Word of God in those men and in those women? They did not have a relationship with God! They had a position in the Church, a position of power, even of comfort. But the Word of God, no!”
Last month, the pope announced the establishment of a commission to help the pontiff decide how best to protect children from sexual abuses by priests and provide aid to past victims.