As new revelations of clerical sex abuse roiled the Catholic Church in Europe this month, a key Vatican official defended Pope Benedict XVI’s handling of the decade-old scandal, and, unusually, backed up the defense with numbers. 

Msgr. Charles J. Scicluna, the Vatican’s lead “prosecutor” for clerical sex abuse, said the pope, as former head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which Pope John Paul II tasked with investigating clerical sex abuse accusations from around the world, handled such cases with courage and wisdom, and forcibly laicized hundreds of priests. 

Gianni Cardinale: Monsignor, you have the reputation of being “tough,” yet the Catholic Church is systematically accused of being accommodating toward “pedophile priests.” 

Msgr. Charles J. Scicluna: It may be that in the past — perhaps also out of a misdirected desire to protect the good name of the institution — some bishops were, in practice, too indulgent toward this sad phenomenon. And I say in practice because, in principle, the condemnation of this kind of crime has always been firm and unequivocal. 

Cardinale: But the Vatican’s norms for clerical sex abuse recommended secrecy... 

Scicluna: A poor English translation of that text has led people to think that the Holy See imposed secrecy in order to hide the facts. But this was not so. Secrecy during the investigative phase served to protect the good name of all the people involved; first and foremost, the victims themselves, then the accused priests who have the right — as everyone does — to the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. The Church does not like showcase justice. Norms on sexual abuse have never been understood as a ban on denouncing the crimes to the civil authorities. 

Cardinale: Nonetheless, that document is periodically cited to accuse the current pontiff of having been — when he was prefect of the former Holy Office — objectively responsible for a Holy See policy of covering up the facts... 

Scicluna: That accusation is false and calumnious. ... Only with the 2001 “motu proprio” did the crime of pedophilia again become our exclusive remit. From that moment Cardinal [Joseph] Ratzinger displayed great wisdom and firmness in handling those cases, also demonstrating great courage in facing some of the most difficult and thorny cases. ... To accuse the current pontiff of a cover-up is, I repeat, false and calumnious. 

Cardinale: What happens when a priest is accused of a sexual abuse? 

Scicluna: If the accusation is well-founded, the bishop has the obligation to investigate both the soundness and the subject of the accusation. If the outcome of this initial investigation is consistent, he no longer has any power to act in the matter and must refer the case to our congregation, where it is dealt with by the disciplinary office. 

Cardinale: How many have you dealt with so far? 

Scicluna: Overall in the last nine years (2001-2010) we have considered accusations concerning around 3,000 cases of diocesan and religious priests, which refer to crimes committed over the last 50 years. 

Cardinale: That is, then, 3,000 cases of pedophile priests? 

Scicluna: No, it is not correct to say that. We can say that about 60 percent of the cases chiefly involved sexual attraction toward adolescents of the same sex, another 30 percent involved heterosexual relations, and the remaining 10 percent were cases of pedophilia in the true sense of the term; that is, based on sexual attraction toward prepubescent children. The cases of priests accused of pedophilia in the true sense have been about 300 in nine years. 

Cardinale: How many of the 3,000 have been tried and condemned? 

Scicluna: Currently we can say that a full trial, penal or administrative, has taken place in 20 percent of cases, normally celebrated in the diocese of origin — always under our supervision — and only very rarely here in Rome. We do this also in order to speed up the process. In 60 percent of cases there has been no trial, above all because of the advanced age of the accused, but administrative and disciplinary provisions have been issued against them, such as the obligation not to celebrate Mass with the faithful, not to hear confession and to live a retired life of prayer. 

Cardinale: That still leaves 20 percent of cases... 

Scicluna: We can say that in 10 percent of cases, the particularly serious ones in which the proof is overwhelming, the Holy Father has assumed the painful responsibility of authorizing a decree of dismissal from the clerical state. This is a very serious but inevitable provision, taken through administrative channels. In the remaining 10 percent of cases, it was the accused priests themselves who requested dispensation from the obligations deriving from the priesthood. 

Cardinale: Where do these 3,000 cases come from? 

Scicluna: Mostly from the United States, which, in the years 2003-2004, represented around 80 percent of total cases. In 2009 the United States “share” had dropped to around 25 percent of the 223 cases reported from all over the world. Over recent years (2007-2009), the annual average of cases reported to the Congregation from around the world has been 250. Many countries report only one or two cases. There is, then, a growing diversity and number of countries of origin of cases, but the phenomenon itself is much reduced. 

Cardinale: A recurring accusation made against the ecclesiastical hierarchy is that of not reporting to the civil authorities when crimes of pedophilia come to their attention. 

Scicluna: In some English-speaking countries, but also in France, if bishops become aware of crimes committed by their priests outside the sacramental seal of confession, they are obliged to report them to the judicial authorities. This is an onerous duty because the bishops are forced to make a gesture comparable to that of a father denouncing his own son. Nonetheless, our guidance in these cases is to respect the law. In countries without that legal obligation, we do not force bishops to denounce their own priests, but encourage them to contact the victims and invite them to denounce the priests by whom they have been abused. Furthermore, we invite the bishops to give all spiritual — and not only spiritual — assistance to those victims. 

This is an excerpt of a Vatican translation of an interview published March 13 in the Italian daily Avvenire.

By The Numbers (sidebar) 

409, 166  

Number of diocesan and religious priests worldwide 

250 

Current average of cases submitted annually to the Vatican 

25 

Percent of cases in 2009 originating in the United States 

80 

Percent of cases in 2003-2004 originating in the United States

3,000 abuse cases spanning five decades

The Vatican official who heads the office dealing with accusations of clerical sex abuse reports that in the past 10 years, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has handled 3,000 cases, dating back 50 years.