Pope defrocked nearly 400 priests

NICOLE WINFIELD AND JOHN HEILPRIN
Last updated 10:17 18/01/2014
Pope Benedict XI
ALESSANDRO BIANCHI/ Reuters
POPE BENEDICT XI: Joseph Ratzinger.

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Pope Benedict XVI defrocked nearly 400 priests over just two years for sexually molesting children, newly obtained documents show.

The statistics for 2011 and 2012 show a dramatic increase over the 171 priests removed in 2008 and 2009, when the Vatican first provided details on the number of priests who had been defrocked.

Prior to that, it had only publicly revealed the number of alleged cases of sexual abuse it had received and the number of trials it had authorised.

While it's not clear why the numbers spiked in 2011, it could be because 2010 saw a new explosion in the number of cases reported in the media in Europe and beyond.

The document was prepared from data the Vatican had been collecting and was compiled to help the Holy See defend itself before a UN committee in Geneva.

Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican's UN ambassador in Geneva, referred to just one of the statistics in the course of eight hours of often pointed criticism and questioning from the UN human rights committee.  

The statistics were compiled from the Vatican's own annual reports about the activities of its various offices, including the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which handles sex abuse cases.

Although public, the annual reports were not readily available or sold outside Rome and were usually found in Vatican offices or Catholic university libraries.

A review of the reference books showed 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.

Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger took action after determining that bishops around the world weren't following church law to put accused clerics on trial in church tribunals.

Bishops routinely moved problem priests from parish to parish rather than subject them to canonical trials - or turn them into 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 from victims was that bishops put the church's own procedures ahead of civil law enforcement by often suggesting victims keep accusations quiet while they were dealt with internally.

The maximum penalty for a priest convicted by a church tribunal was essentially losing his job: being defrocked, or removed from the clerical state. There were no jail terms and nothing to prevent an offender from raping again.

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According to the 2001 norms Ratzinger pushed through and subsequent updates, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith reviewed each case sent to Rome and then instructed bishops how to proceed, either by launching an administrative process against the priest if the evidence was overwhelming or a church trial. At every step of the way the priest was allowed to defend himself.

The Congregation started reporting numbers only in 2005, which was where Tomasi's spreadsheet starts off. UN officials said Friday that the committee had not received the document.

In 2005, the Congregation authorised 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 authorised 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 includes a handful of non-abuse 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 these years following the 2002 explosion of US sex abuse cases in the US. In 2007, 23 cases were sent to dioceses for trial.

By 2008, the tone of the Vatican's entry had changed. Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, travelled 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 US 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. Some 191 new cases were reported.

A year later, the number of defrocked priests rose to 103, while some 223 new cases were received, the vast majority of them abuse-related.

The year 2010 was another milestone in the sex abuse saga, with the explosion of thousands of cases reported in the media across Europe and beyond. Some 527 cases were reported to the Congregation.

No figures were given that year for the number of defrocked priests, rather the Congregation described new church laws put in place to more easily and quickly remove them.

By 2011, with the new streamlined laws in place, the number of defrocked priests rose dramatically: 260 priests were removed in one year only, while 404 new cases of child abuse were reported.

In addition to those defrocked, another 419 priests had lesser penalties imposed on them 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.

- AP

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