The Vatican's U.N. ambassador in Geneva, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, revealed the figures during a second day of grilling by a U.N. committee monitoring implementation of the U.N. treaty against torture.
Tomasi insisted the convention applied only inside the tiny Vatican City state. But he nevertheless released statistics about how the Holy See has adjudicated sex abuse cases globally, and significantly, he didn't dispute the committee's contention that sexual violence against children can be considered torture.
Tomasi said that since 2004, more than 3,400 credible cases of abuse had been referred to the Vatican, including 401 cases in 2013 alone. He said that over the last decade, 848 priests had been defrocked, or returned to the lay state by the pope. Another 2,572 were sentenced to a lifetime of penance and prayer or some other lesser sanction, which is often used when the accused priest is elderly or infirm.
Acknowledging the high number of priests sanctioned with the lesser punishment, Tomasi said it still amounted to disciplinary action and that the abuser is "just put in a place where he doesn't have any contact with the children."
The Associated Press in January reported that then-Pope Benedict XVI had defrocked 384 priests in the final two years of his pontificate, citing documentation Tomasi's delegation had prepared for another U.N. committee hearing that matched data contained in the Vatican's statistical yearbooks.
Tomasi told the AP on Tuesday that those figures from January were "incomplete" and that the data he provided the torture committee Tuesday — the first ever year-by-year breakdown of how cases were adjudicated — was complete.
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 so to say 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."
Winfield reported from Rome.