In his last two years as pope, Benedict XVI defrocked nearly 400 priests for raping and molesting children, more than twice as many as the two years that preceded a 2010 explosion of sex abuse cases in Europe and beyond, according to a document obtained Friday by The Associated Press and an analysis of Vatican statistics.
The data — 260 priests defrocked in 2011 and 124 in 2012, a total of 384 — represented a dramatic increase over the 171 priests defrocked in 2008 and 2009.
It was the first compilation of the number of priests forcibly removed for sex abuse by the Vatican's in-house procedures — and a canon lawyer said the real figure is likely far higher, since the numbers don't include sentences meted out by diocesan courts.
The spike started a year after the Vatican decided to double the statute of limitations on the crime, enabling victims who were in their late 30s to report abuse committed against them when they were children.
Before becoming pope, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger took action after determining that bishops around the world weren't following church policy and putting accused clerics on trial in church tribunals. Instead, bishops routinely moved problem priests from parish to parish rather than subject them to canonical trials — or turn them over to 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 against the Vatican from victims is that bishops put the church's procedures ahead of civil law enforcement by suggesting that victims keep accusations quiet while they were dealt with internally.
The maximum penalty for a priest convicted by a church tribunal is essentially losing his job: being defrocked, or removed from the clerical state. There are no jail terms and nothing to prevent an offender from raping again.
A total of 555 priests were defrocked from 2008 to 2012, according to the Vatican figures, though data from 2010 was not included.
The Rev. Davide Cito, a canon lawyer at Rome's Pontifical Holy Cross University who has helped prosecute abuse cases for the Vatican, said the real number may be far higher. The reason? The figures in the Vatican's annual report only refer to the outcome of cases sent to the pope.
Those are the slam-dunk cases where there was so much evidence against the priest that a church trial wasn't necessary, or cases where the priest himself asked to be relieved of his celibacy vow and position as a prelate because of the accusations.
But individual dioceses can also remove priests from the clerical state as the result of a canonical trial in which the priest is found guilty, Cito said.
"There can also be more without the intervention of the pope," he said. "They don't tell us the number, so there's no way to know."
The Congregation started reporting numbers only in 2005, which is where the spreadsheet prepared for the Vatican delegation in Geneva starts.
Victims groups said the spike in cases appeared to be the result of victims gaining the strength to come forward and denounce abusive priests. They demanded the Vatican start sanctioning bishops who covered up for the abuse, too.
"Here's the number Catholics should remember: zero. That's how many Catholic supervisors have been punished, worldwide, for enabling and hiding horrific clergy sex crimes," said David Clohessy of SNAP, the main U.S. victims group. "The pope must start defrocking clerics who cover up sex crimes, not just clerics who commit them."