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Pope Francis is not Enough, Sexual Abuse by Priests Remains a Taboo in Italy

Shame, the code of silence and the Church’s power have all helped to hide priests’ sexual abuse: memories from my childhood parish

Pope Francis presides over a Holy Mass at the Apostolic Palace's Sala Regia to close the four-day meeting on the global sexual abuse crisis. Vatican Media/­Handout via REUTERS

Incredibly, in Italy there are no official statistics on minors who have been victims of sexual abuse by priests. The recent efforts of Pope Francis will be useless if we don’t break down the wall of silence - even maintained by the media - that has covered up the scandal of pedophile priests in Italy even after the US had started to expose and prosecute them. How many young victims have still not told their stories?

On Sunday, at the Vatican, Pope Francis ended a four-day summit on clerical sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, calling “for an all-out battle against the abuse of minors,” and insisting that the Church needed to protect children “from ravenous wolves.” Activists for survivors of clerical sexual abuse expressed disappointment after the Pope failed to promise a “zero tolerance” approach to pedophile priests and the bishops who cover up their crimes, and dedicated a significant part of his closing speech focusing on the prevalence of child abuse across society. Citing data, he said that the majority of cases arose within families and that the perpetrators of abuse were “primarily parents, relatives, husbands of child brides and teachers”.

“Pope Francis’ talk today was a stunning letdown, a catastrophic misreading of the grief and outrage of the faithful,” said Anne Barrett Doyle, the co-founder of Bishop Accountability, which tracks clergy sex abuse cases. She described the speech as “recycled rhetoric.” Speaking to Barrett Doyle claimed, “The pope has undone the tiny bit of progress that possibly was achieved this week. He was defensive, rationalizing that abuse happens in all sectors of society. Ironically and sadly, he exhibited no responsibility, no accountability and no transparency.” 

The Guardian also carried a quote by Francesco Zanardi, who set up “Rete l’Abuso,” Italy’s only network of clerical abuse survivors. “We’re being taken for a ride. We expected a concrete response but nothing useful has come out of this. In this speech the Church makes itself out to be the victim – but we are the victims.”

Last week, Zanardi and “Rete L’Abuso” were mentioned extensively in an article by the New York Times. Tracking cases through confidential tips and news reports, usually in local papers, Zanardi’s group has created a map of alleged offenses. The Times also mentioned a rare Italian book on clerical abuse, Giustizia Divina, by Emanuela Provera and Federico Tulli. The authors estimate that since the year 2000, 300 priests have been accused. It reveals that just 140 of them were investigated, and that very few went to jail, even if convicted. Incredibly, there are no reliable statistics on the number of victims of clerical abuse in Italy.

On February 1st, a report by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child gave Italy a failing grade on protecting minors from sexual exploitation. In particular, the committee expressed concern “about the numerous cases of children having been sexually abused by religious personnel of the Catholic Church” and the “low number of investigations and criminal prosecutions” of those crimes. As a matter of fact, in Italy, the issue of sexual abuse by the clergy is a taboo subject or better yet, it is an issue most Italians are unaware of because it has never been covered extensively by the Italian media.

As a journalist, I’ve covered several popes and the Vatican for some 30 years, and I’ve witnessed at close quarters how the hierarchy has tried to dismiss or minimize every story that had to do with priests and sexual abuse. In some instances, I learned of cases where pedophile priests had been protected by cardinals, and even by Pope John Paul II. Most notable among these was the case of Marcial Maciel, the Mexican founder of the Legionaries of Christ, a powerful Roman Catholic religious order. Two years after his death, the Legionaries admitted that Maciel, a close ally of the late Pope John Paul II, for decades, had molested seminarians and fathered several children, and expressed “sorrow and grief” to anyone “damaged by our founder’s actions.” These stories were duly reported by the American media but – with notable exceptions – very reluctantly, if at all, by the Italian media.

Furthermore, contrary to all evidence, the official narrative of the Roman Catholic Church, in Italy (as has been the case in the United States), was that these incidents only regarded a few “bad apples.” As a matter of fact, Church officials and most Italians have always dismissed the matter as an issue that didn’t regard them.

Only someone who has lived in Italy, as I have for decades, and grown up here can understand the pervasiveness of the Church – and of priests – in everyday Italian society. Back in the Fifties and Sixties, an absolute majority of Italians were practicing Catholics. Kids of both sexes went to catechism lessons and there were priests present in the entire school system, including high school, to teach religion.

It is safe to say that, until recently, a majority of young Italian males grew up frequenting their parish grounds, if for no other reason, in order to play soccer on the parish field. For this reason, I’m absolutely certain that all those boys had direct personal knowledge, as I did – either from personal experience or the testimony of a friend – of the fact that certain priests were used to abusing children. I use the word “abuse” to include certain kinds of talk, touching and, of course sexual acts.

We all knew that you never wanted to be caught alone with Father So-and-so, who had a habit of touching pubescent boys, and one also knew who were the priests who were “OK,” meaning they wouldn’t try any strange stuff. Clearly, this behavior had to be known to the other priests and, since it was allowed to go on, it is fair to say that it was tolerated by Church officials.

And yet, here in Italy this dark secret has never been denounced publicly. In part due to the all pervasive power of the Roman Catholic Church – now on the wane but once something few politicians would dare to challenge – and, quite possibly, to the fact that if one denounced a priest for sexual abuse, one would most likely be tainted with the accusation of being gay.

Based on the fact that there were thousands of victims in Boston, as denounced by the Boston Globe’s Spotlight investigative team in 2002 and, after that, in every major American city, as well in many other cities in several countries around the world, it is safe to presume that there must have been thousands of cases in Rome and every other Italian city.

Did such a large number of cases of sexual abuse by the clergy really take place in Italy? What effect did these abuses have on the lives of the victims? Will the perpetrators ever be called to answer for their crimes? Will the Roman Catholic Church ever be forced to admit to having been aware of and of having suppressed any knowledge of a widespread phenomenon of sexual abuse committed by priests in Italy? At present, these questions remain unanswered.

Unfortunately, the summit at the Vatican has failed to come up with concrete measures to tackle the issue of sexual abuse by the clergy, such as the immediate mandatory referral by the bishops of any such cases to the national police. And, here in Italy, it has yet to be acknowledged that there ever has been – and quite possibly there still is – a major problem regarding sexual abuse of minors by pedophile priests.

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