Report: Former Pope Benedict Defrocked Hundreds Of Abusive Priests

According to an Associated Press report, Pope Benedict XVI defrocked nearly 400 priests in 2011 and 2012, because of child molestation charges against the priests. Host Arun Rath speaks with AP Vatican City reporter Nicole Winfield, who broke the story.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

Four hundred Catholic priests defrocked by the Vatican in just two years. That figure comes from a report published yesterday by the Associated Press. According to the AP, Pope Benedict XVI started that purge in 2011 in response to the worldwide child molestation scandal that brought an avalanche of charges and lawsuits.

Nicole Winfield was one of two AP reporters to break the story, and we asked her to put those numbers into context.

NICOLE WINFIELD: The years in question were 2011 and 2012. So these were the final two years of his pontificate. They also, though, coincided with the two years that came after the 2010 eruption - a second eruption of cases in Europe, beyond in Latin America, some more in the United States. And one of the things that they did in 2010 was extended the statute of limitations. People who claimed that they had been abused could now report the charge to the Vatican as late as in their late 30s. They doubled the statutes.

So one can think that perhaps the uptick in the number of cases being reported, that would also result in an increase in the number of priests who were then sanctioned.

RATH: Now, why wouldn't the Vatican share this information with the media at that time?

WINFIELD: Well, technically, this information was public. The Vatican reported these figures in their annual statistical yearbook of the activities of each of its offices. These are 1,000-page long reference books that few people outside of the Vatican or Rome really ever referenced. It's hard to find the information because it's not like they come out and say it. Much of it is in Latin. The sanction isn't, you know, defrocking. They tell you that it's a dismissal from the office or a dispensation from your clerical obligations.

So you kind of have to know what to look for. It was certainly not intended in a great act of transparency. If they wanted to let, you know, the world know, they would've put out a press release, I'm sure. And when I saw the numbers, I kind of said, wow, and did the math and put it together.

RATH: What actually happens when a priest is defrocked like this? Do the church authorities work with local authorities, or what actually happens?

WINFIELD: Well, the Vatican norms call for, if a Bishop receives a credible accusation against a priest, to report it both to the Vatican, and he must also inform police. But the current Vatican requirements just say where local laws require it. The Vatican comes back and tells the bishop how to proceed. If the case is completely overwhelming, if there is absolutely no doubt in the Vatican's mind that the priest was guilty, they can submit the paperwork directly to the pope for him to take action. Those are the cases that we are dealing with in this 400 number.

RATH: Does this reporting change our understanding of the Benedict papacy at all?

WINFIELD: I think it does. I was surprised by the high number because it shows that Benedict, who had been criticized for his role as the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for a quarter century, which had dealt with this issue. This, to me, shows that he was acting decisively. Others, though, could look at it and say, holy cow, 400 priests in two years. This number isn't even the total. This is just the number of cases that were presented to the pope to deal with. This is an enormous number. This is an embarrassing number. We don't want this information out.

RATH: That's AP reporter Nicole Winfield from Rome. Nicole, thank you.

WINFIELD: Thank you.

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