GENEVA -- The Vatican revealed Tuesday that over the past decade, it has defrocked 848 priests who raped or molested children and sanctioned another 2,572 with lesser penalties, providing the first ever breakdown of how it handled the more than 3,400 cases of abuse reported to the Holy See since 2004.
The Vatican's U.N. ambassador in Geneva, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, released the figures during a second day of grilling by a U.N. committee monitoring implementation of the U.N. treaty against torture.
Tomasi insisted that the Holy See was only obliged to abide by the torture treaty inside the tiny Vatican City State, which has a population of only a few hundred people.
But significantly, he didn't dispute the committee's contention that sexual violence against children can be considered torture. Legal experts have said that classifying sexual abuse as torture could expose the Catholic Church to a new wave of lawsuits since torture cases in much of the world don't carry statutes of limitations.
Tomasi also provided statistics about how the Holy See has adjudicated sex abuse cases for the past decade. The Vatican in 2001 required bishops and religious superiors to forward all credible cases of abuse to Rome for review after determining that they were shuffling pedophile priests from diocese to diocese rather than subjecting them to church trials. Only in 2010 did the Vatican explicitly tell bishops and superiors to also report credible cases to police where local reporting laws require them to.
The Vatican statistics are notable in that they show how the peaks in numbers over the years - both of cases reported and sanctions meted out - roughly parallels the years in which abuse scandals were in the news. And they showed that far from diminishing in recent years, the number of cases reported annually to the Vatican has remained a fairly constant 400 or so since 2010, the last year the scandal erupted in public around the globe. These cases, however, concern mostly abuse that occurred decades ago.
The Associated Press reported in January that then-Pope Benedict XVI had defrocked 384 priests in the final two years of his pontificate, citing documentation that Tomasi's delegation had prepared for another U.N. hearing monitoring a treaty on the rights of children. That documentation matched data contained in the Vatican's statistical yearbooks.
Tomasi told the AP on Tuesday that the January figures were "incomplete" and that the data he provided to the U.N. committee Tuesday was the first ever comprehensive year-by-year breakdown of cases reported and adjudicated. The figures, however, only cover cases handled directly by the Holy See, not those handled by local diocesan tribunals, meaning the total number of sanctioned priests is likely far higher.
The data showed that since 2004, the Vatican had received some 3,400 cases, had defrocked 848 priests and sanctioned another 2,572 to lesser penalties.
There are over 410,000 Catholic priests around the world, according to the Catholic News Service.
The latest spike began in 2010, when 464 cases were reported, more than twice the amount in 2009. Starting in that same year, the Vatican began resorting more and more to the lesser penalty of sentencing accused priests to a lifetime of penance and prayer rather than defrocking them. The Vatican often metes out such sentences for elderly or infirm priests, since defrocking them would essentially render them destitute in their final years.
Prior to 2010, these lesser sanctions were only handed out to about 100 or so priests each year.
Tomassi stressed the lesser sanctions still amounted to punishment and the abuser was "put in a place where he doesn't have any contact with the children."
The main U.S. victim's group, SNAP, praised the Vatican for releasing the data, saying "Every step toward more transparency about clergy sex crimes and coverups is good." But it called the numbers "meaningless" and urged the Vatican to release the names and whereabouts of molesters.
Nick Cafardi, a U.S. canon lawyer and former chairman of the U.S. bishops' lay review board that monitored clerical abuse, said the statistics clearly showed a positive evolution in how the church dealt with the abuse problem.
"Given where the church came from - with the pendulum swung squarely to the side of the accused priest whose explanations were almost always believed - this is a move away from that and more toward giving credibility to victims, which is progress," he said. "Maybe not perfect progress, but progress."
Tomasi's appearance marked the second time this year that the Vatican has been hauled before a U.N. committee to face uncomfortable questions about how it has handled the crisis of priests who raped and molested tens of thousands of children, and the bishops who covered up for them. The Vatican was required to appear as a signatory to U.N. treaties.
The vice-chair of the committee, Felice Gaer, pressed Tomasi to acknowledge whether the Holy See considered sexual abuse to be a form of torture. She cited decisions from many international bodies, including the U.N. tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda, which have held that sexual violence is indeed a form of torture.
"I'm not a lawyer," Tomasi said. But he didn't dispute the contention, saying merely that the alleged torture and the behavior of the person inflicting it must be "consistent with the definition of the convention."
The U.N. convention defines torture as "any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person" to obtain information, to punish or coerce and is inflicted with the "consent or acquiescence" of a public official.
Gaer said afterward that she considered Tomasi's response to be a clear admission by the Holy See that sexual violence can be a form of torture.
Victims' advocates and legal groups have said the Catholic Church could be exposed to a new round of litigation if courts agree that abuse can constitute torture. Other legal experts, however, have expressed doubts that U.S. courts would be swayed by an attempt to reclassify rape as torture merely to get around the statute of limitations. The statute issue has proved to be a major stumbling block for many victims, since many are unable to cope with the trauma of the abuse until it's too late to pursue civil damages.
"The Vatican has long minimized these offenses and the resulting harm," said Pam Spees, a senior attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, which provided documentation to the U.N. committee detailing the scope of the clerical abuse problem. "But the committee's recognition (of abuse as a form of torture) could help open additional channels for victims to seek justice and reparations, including, potentially, relief from restrictive statutes of limitations and civil remedies, all of which contributes to preventing more harm."
Tomasi acknowledged that there were problems in the past, including when priests were transferred from diocese to diocese after psychiatrists gave them a clean bill of health, thinking that a pedophile could be cured with therapy.
"The culture at the time would allow this to happen," he said. "Unfortunately, that was a mistake as experience has shown."
He told the committee that "there is no climate of impunity but there is a total commitment to clean the house" and prevent more abuse.
"I think we have crossed a threshold ... in our evolution of the approach to these problems," he concluded. "It's clear that the issue of sexual abuse of children, which is a worldwide plague and scourge, has been addressed in the last 10 years by the church in a systematic, comprehensive, constructive way."