As the Vatican was being blistered by a U.N. committee this week for its decades-long mishandling and cover up of a global sex abuse scandal involving priests and children, new disclosures show the extraordinary steps that Pope Benedict XVI took to get rid of problem priests.
In just two years, Benedict defrocked nearly 400 priests, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press, which first reported the story on Friday. The number of priests defrocked by Benedict in 2011 and 2012 reflected a dramatic spike over the 171 priests removed in 2008 and 2009, according to the AP.
The newly uncovered statistics come from data from annual reports compiled by the Vatican to help the Holy See defend itself before a U.N. committee this week in Geneva.
While Benedict has been seen as remote, dogmatic, and lacking the charisma of both his predecessor, John Paul II, and his successor, Pope Francis, he was aggressive in pushing the Holy See to address the scourge of child molestation within the Church.
When the Roman Catholic sex abuse scandal broke in 2001, the Vatican ordered bishops to send cases of all credibly accused priests to Rome for review, according to an AP story detailing Benedict’s actions.
Advocates for survivors of clergy sex abuse reacted to the AP report with tempered enthusiasm.
“It’s about time,” Nick Ingala, a spokesman for Voice of the Faithful, a survivor advocacy group based in Boston, told msnbc. “As opposed to finding it aggressive on the part of Pope Benedict, I’m wondering if it represents the majority of priests that have been defrocked for sex abuse recently. I’d be surprised if there weren’t more, and I’d be wondering why it took so long for the church to get on with this kind of action.”
Ingala said he also wonders “why the bishops who covered up the abuse aren’t being held accountable as the priests who perpetrated the abuse.”
Still, Ingala said very little could repair what’s been taken from victims.
“Very often there’s almost nothing you can do to heal some of the survivors of sexual abuse of the trauma that they’ve been put through,” he said. “But whenever the abuse can be brought to light, whenever the church tells the truth about the abuse and whenever the church holds either those who did it or those who abetted it accountable for it, then it does go to healing, not only for survivors but the church as well.”
The church has been criticized for not just covering up a vast number of abuses perpetrated by priests, but buffering and protecting pedophile priests from law enforcement. Instead of being referred to law enforcement, the accusations were handled in-house. The protection of the church allowed priests who abused children to be moved to other parishes or at worst be defrocked; they rarely faced jail time.
The hearings in Geneva forced the Vatican for the first time to publicly and at length respond to the allegations of widespread, global sexual abuse by its priests.
"For too many years, survivors were the only ones speaking out about this and bearing the brunt of a lot of criticism," Pam Spees, a human rights attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights, which provided a key report to the committee, told Al Jazeera America. "And so this is a very important moment for many, many people who are here in Geneva and around the world who will be watching as the Holy See is called for the first time ever to actually answer questions."
The Vatican maintained that its hands were essentially tied and that it had little jurisdiction to punish the vast number of pedophile priests around the world. It insisted that the matter was for local law enforcement to handle. Officials allowed though that more needs to be done, given the depth and scale of the abuses perpetrated across the globe.
"The Holy See gets it," Monsignor Charles Scicluna, the Vatican's former sex crimes prosecutor, told the committee, according to the AP. "Let's not say too late or not. But there are certain things that need to be done differently."