Thanks to the UN, the Vatican is facing its first public questioning on the years-long child abuse scandal that's plagued the church for decades. For hours on Thursday, child protection experts from the UN criticized the Holy See for its lack of transparency over an epidemic of clergy abuse in the church.
On Friday, the Associated Press reported a startling statistic revealed at the UN hearing that seemed to show the depth of the problem: in 2011 and 2012 alone, they wrote, Pope Benedict XVI defrocked 400 priests for sexually abusing children. The statistic came from a report, prepped by the Vatican, to defend its handling of the child abuse scandal. Some Vatican experts initially questioned the accuracy of that number, until the AP explained the breakdown of how they got the figure in a later version of their report.
In 2012, there were 418 cases of sexual abuse of a minor, while in 2011 the figure was 404 (that's the highlighted number). The columns the second to the right apparently detail defrockings. 260 were defrocked in 2011, and 124 in 2012. That adds up to 384.
On Friday, the Vatican initially denied the report to the National Catholic Reporter, saying it was based off of an "incorrect" interpretation of the document. But later, Auxiliary Bishop Charles Scicluna of Malta confirmed to the NCR that the figures were accurate. Vatican spokesperson Fr. Federico Lombardi then told the NCR that despite his earlier denial, the figure of 384 defrocked priests in 2011 and 2012 was was “correct."
The Catholic sex abuse scandal has two parts to it: the actual child molestation of children at the hands of clergy, and the Vatican's efforts to keep all of it as quiet as possible. Benedict's own record on the child abuse scandal is mixed: on the one hand, his papacy produced the first publicly-known guidelines for disciplining abusive clergy members. But those efforts came decades after child abuse became an issue of concern among members of the Catholic hierarchy.
As Pope, Benedict was slow to speak on the issue of clergy abuse, and could sometimes get defensive on it. As Bloomberg points out, Benedict's mixed record on the issue extends before his papacy:
As archbishop of Munich, he took part in a 1980 decision to move a priest accused of molestation to his diocese to undergo therapy, the Vatican said. As head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, the Vatican’s doctrinal office, he didn’t reply to two letters in 1996 from a U.S. archbishop seeking action against a priest for the alleged molestation of 200 deaf children between 1950 and 1974
In 2002, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops instituted a series of reforms similar to those Benedict later instituted internationally, following a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation by the Boston Globe earlier that year into clergy abuse. Before then, it was common practice for some Bishops — particularly American ones — to reassign, rather than defrock, priests accused of child molestation. The church also came under fire for allegedly inadequately participating in criminal investigations into child molestation allegations.
The church still has a transparency problem when it comes to its internal steps to discipline abusive priests. The UN hearing this week is, in part, a decades overdue report on the subject from the Vatican. While the Holy See signed the UN's children's right charter in 1990, this is the first time it's ever been held accountable to its terms. The AP's report, by the way, doesn't specify whether the 400 defrocked priests were also subject to criminal investigations in their home countries.
Since March, the Vatican under Pope Francis has also endured a mixed record on its handling of child abuse scandals. Last week, the Vatican announced that it doesn't extradite its citizens, in response to an investigation into alleged abuse by Polish Archbishop Josef Wesolowski, the Holy See's former ambassador to the Dominican Republic. The Vatican also argued that Wesolowski is protected by diplomatic immunity against twin Dominican Republic and Polish investigations. The Vatican is conducting its own investigation into the allegations. Pope Francis overall has been slightly more willing than his predecessor to speak out on sex abuse in the church in the first year of his papacy. In December, the Pope formed an expert committee to advise him on reforms meant both to combat abuse and care for those victimized by clergy.
Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a prominent accountability group critical of the Vatican's handling of its abuse epidemic, released a statement responding to the numbers reported by the AP: Numbers don't protect kids. Decisive action protects kids," Joelle Casteix, western regional director for SNAP said. "Parents, police, prosecutors and parishioners need the names and whereabouts of every child molesting Catholic cleric. That's the information that the Vatican should be making public."
Based on questions about the Associated Press's interpretation of a widely-cited statistic mentioned in this piece, we've updated this post.