The Vatican office responsible for processing clergy sex abuse complaints has seen a record 1,000 cases reported from around the world this year, including from countries it had not heard from before — suggesting that the worst may be yet to come in a crisis that has plagued the Catholic Church.

Nearly two decades after the Vatican assumed responsibility for reviewing all cases of abuse, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is today overwhelmed, struggling with a skeleton staff that hasn’t grown at a pace to meet the four-fold increase in the number of cases arriving in 2019 compared to a decade ago.

“I know cloning is against Catholic teaching, but if I could actually clone my officials and have them work three shifts a day or work seven days a week,” they might make the necessary headway, said Monsignor John Kennedy, the head of the congregation’s discipline section, which processes the cases.

“We’re effectively seeing a tsunami of cases at the moment, particularly from countries where we never heard from (before),” Kennedy said, referring to allegations of abuse that occurred for the most part years or decades ago. Argentina, Mexico, Chile, Italy and Poland have joined the US among the countries with the most cases arriving at the congregation, known as the CDF.

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Even the Vatican’s most secretive institution now feels the need to show some transparency as the church hierarchy seeks to rebuild trust with rank-and-file Catholics who have grown disillusioned with decades of clergy abuse and cover-up.

Pope Francis took a step towards showing greater transparency with his decision this week to abolish the so-called “pontifical secret” that governs the processing of abuse cases to increase cooperation with civil law enforcement.

But the CDF’s struggles remain, and are emblematic of the overall dysfunction of the church’s in-house legal system, which relies on bishops and religious superiors, some with no legal experience or qualified canon lawyers on staff, to investigate allegations of sexual abuse that even the most seasoned criminal prosecutors have difficulty parsing.

The system itself is built on an inherent conflict of interest, with a bishop asked to weigh the claim of an unknown alleged victim against the word of a priest whom he considers a spiritual son.

Predator priests

Despite promises of “zero tolerance” and accountability, the adoption of new laws and the creation of expert commissions, the Vatican finds itself still struggling to reckon with the problem of predator priests -- a scourge that first erupted publicly in Ireland and Australia in the 1990s, the US in 2002, parts of Europe beginning in 2010 and Latin America last year.

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Located in a mustard-coloured palazzo just inside the Vatican gates, the CDF serves as the central processing centre for abuse cases as well as an appeals court for accused priests under the church’s canon law, a parallel legal system to civil law enforcement that dispenses ecclesial justice.

In the past, when the CDF was known as the Holy Office or the Sacred Roman and Universal Inquisition, such church punishments involved burnings at stake for heretics and publishing lists of banned books that the faithful were forbidden to read.

Today, CDF justice tends more toward ordering errant priests to prayer, penance and prohibition from celebrating Mass in public. In fact, the worst punishment handed down by the church’s canon law, even for serial child rapists, is essentially being fired or dismissed from the clerical state.

Defrocking approach

While priests sometimes consider defrocking to be equivalent to a death sentence, such seemingly minor sanctions for such heinous crimes have long outraged victims, whose lives are forever scarred by their abuse. But recourse to church justice is sometimes all the victims have, given the statutes of limitations for pursuing criminal charges or civil litigation have often long since passed by the time a survivor comes to terms with the trauma and decides to report the abuse to authorities — usually to prevent further harm.

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From 2004 to 2014 — roughly the years of Benedict’s papacy with a year on each bookend — some 848 priests were defrocked around the world, and another 2,572 were sanctioned to lesser penalties, according to Vatican statistics.

The Vatican hasn’t published updated statistics since then, but Benedict’s get-tough defrocking approach has seemingly gone unmatched by Francis.

The Jesuit pope appears more swayed by arguments that the church and society are better served if abusers remain in the priesthood, albeit out of active ministry with young people, so they are at least under surveillance by their superiors and not able to have access to children in other jobs.

The appeals are decided in an ivory damask-walled conference room on the first floor of the Palazzo Sant’Uffizio, the CDF headquarters a stones’ throw from St Peter’s Square.

The room is dominated by a massive wooden crucifix on the wall that faces St. Peter’s Basilica, and, in each corner of the room, a closed-circuit TV camera peering down on CDF staff.

The cameras record the debates on DVDs for the CDF’s own archives and in case the pope ever wants to see what transpired.

It is wretched work, reading through case files filled with text messages of priests grooming their victims, psychological evaluations of paedophiles, and heart-numbing letters from men and women who were violated as children and are finally coming to terms with their traumas.