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Abuse survivors in Italy urge action on cover-ups

25 February 2022

Rete L’Abuso/Google Maps

Map by Rete L’Abuso: red pins mark abusers who have confessed; yellow pins are for those awaiting trial or about whom nothing has been heard; black pins mark priests convicted overseas and hidden in Italy; and the blue squares are refuges for priests with problems, including those accused of abuse

Map by Rete L’Abuso: red pins mark abusers who have confessed; yellow pins are for those awaiting trial or about whom nothing has been heard; black pi...

GROUPS representing sexual-abuse survivors have demanded an inquiry into alleged church cover-ups in Italy, after complaints of inaction by the country’s Roman Catholic leaders.

“Many families, including my own, believe the Church has shown itself incapable of confronting this issue — they’ve acted as if we were the enemy, making us victims twice over,” said Cristina Balestrini, a director of the Savona-based Rete L’Abuso victim association.

“We’re saddened that victims are pushed away from the Church, while many have committed suicide, with no one knowing. Though they’re trying to keep a lid on it, it’s better to take the lid off yourself than have it blown off.”

Ms Balestrini, a Roman Catholic, was speaking on Tuesday at the launch of a campaign, “Beyond the Great Silence”, by nine separate organisations that are seeking an independent investigation into abuse by clergy, and tougher laws to bring perpetrators to justice.

Other campaigners have accused the RC Church in Italy of ignoring its own rules on combating abuse, including procedures set out in a 2019 papal Apostolic Letter (motu proprio), Vos Estis Lux Mundi.

“The diocesan listening centres already in operation lack proper credentials, and cannot be considered a reliable data source,” the head of Italy’s Women for the Church group, Paola Lazzarini, told the press conference in Rome. “Some bishops have proposed a broader investigation into sexual abuse generally rather than just in the Catholic Church. But the Church should look to its own house before teaching or speaking about other institutions.”

Complaints have long circulated against the RC Church in Italy, where most abuse investigations are carried out secretly under Vatican jurisdiction, in line with past treaty arrangements: convicted priests are transferred to other posts rather than facing prison or unfrocking.

The Italian Bishops’ Conference has previously resisted calls for an independent investigation; most members insist that the Church can rely on its own internal resources.

The Rete L’Abuso association, however, says that it has recorded 360 cases of priests accused or convicted of paedophilia in the past 15 years. Campaigners, using the hashtag #ItalyChurchToo, say that evidence from church archives could point to a higher rate of abuse than in other European countries.

“Italy has one of the highest numbers of priests in the world; so it’s obvious that the scandal could be worse here,” Rete L’Abuso’s founder, Francesco Zanardi, told journalists on Tuesday.

“Many foreign priests accused of paedophilia have also been given shelter here, which is why we need an independent inquiry. If the Church does one internally, it won’t be credible.”

Independent inquiries into clerical abuse have taken place in the United States, Ireland, and Portugal, and have recently been urged by politicians in Spain.
In Germany, where a 2018 investigation suggested that 1670 RC priests had committed abuse over seven decades, Pope Emeritus Benedict apologised last week after claims in a fresh report that he failed to act against accused clergy while he was Archbishop of Munich & Freising, from 1977 to1982 (News, 11 February).

In France, an Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church (CIASE) submitted 45 recommendations for procedural and doctrinal church reforms last October. It estimated in a report that 330,000 children had been abused by 3200 RC priests, teachers, and other laity since 1950 (News, 8 October 2021) — although these data-generated figures have since been challenged.

In a website report, the Rete L’Abuso association said that the Italian government, under the Prime Minister Mario Draghi, had yet to devise a national child-protection plan, including obligations to report abuse and provide compensation, despite calls by a 2019 United Nations commission.

Attempted reforms of the statute of limitations in Italy have proved fruitless, also. A conviction cannot be secured after a period equal to the maximum length of sentence for a particular crime, dating from the time of the crime rather than its reporting.

“The violence of an adult against a child is defined by psychiatrists and psychotherapists as ‘psychic murder’ — but ours is the only country where the Church and secular institutions haven’t sought to carry out any investigation on a national scale,” the association said.

“We have been asking for a parliamentary commission of inquiry on paedophilia in the Italian Church. Incredibly, our appeal has remained unheard.”

On Monday, Pope Francis set up a new discipline section to handle sex abuse and other offences by clergy. This is part of a reform of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and is expected to review reporting procedures under Vos Estis Lux Mundi this spring.

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