In Italy, a call for a national investigation into clerical sexual abuse

ROME — Catholic groups and abuse survivors on Tuesday called on the Roman Catholic Church in Italy, which still has to contend with the scourge of sexual abuse by priests, to create an independent commission to investigate how the crisis has been managed.

In a number of countries – including Australia, France, Ireland and the United States – the church has allowed scrutiny of its actions. But so far, the church in Italy has resisted calls for an independent investigation, even after Pope Francis in 2019 held a historic meeting on clerical sex abuse and called for “an all-out battle against abuse on minors”.

“Italy is an anomaly,” said Francesco Zanardi, a survivor of clerical abuse and president of Rete l’Abuso, the country’s most outspoken victims’ rights group, which has independently tracked more than 350 boxes of pedophile priests in Italian justice.

An investigation would be “the first step towards the justice that victims and families are entitled to”, said Ludovica Eugenio, a journalist for a Catholic weekly who is part of the newly formed group, which does not yet have a name but is in using hashtag #ItalyChurchToo.

Speaking at a press conference on Tuesday, Ms Eugenio said the consortium wanted the church in Italy to ‘take responsibility for the abuses, cover-ups and abandonment of victims’ who have not been heard nor compensated. He also called on the Italian Parliament to improve existing legislation and draft new laws to make it easier to report and adjudicate cases of abuse committed by priests.

Reverend Hans Zollner, one of the best in the Vatican experts in the protection of minorssaid in an interview last week that even in Italy, where the church still had “the feeling of being untouchable”, the tide was turning.

“The church no longer has a choice. The public expects it,” said Father Zollner.

The pleas from advocates and survivors – which include the opening of the church’s private archives – follow recent revelations of clerical abuses in other countries. In Germany, a report released last month put retired Pope Benedict XVI in the spotlight. The report says Benedict XVI mishandled four cases of child sexual abuse while he was archbishop in Germany, prompting Benedict XVI to seek forgiveness, while denying any wrongdoing.

In 2019, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child criticized Italy for not sufficiently protecting minors against sexual exploitation. In particular, the committee expressed concern “at 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” relating to these crimes.

Any investigation should include cases of nun abuse and other forms of violence, said Paola Cavallari, a theologian and member of the fledgling group.

Paola Lazzarini, president of the group Women for the Church, said an investigation must establish – and make public – individual responsibilities.

“The Catholic Church is a hierarchical Church, in which the chain of command is very clear, but when it comes to abuse, personal responsibilities become vague. This shouldn’t happen again,” she said.

Church officials did not immediately respond to Tuesday’s calls to action. But the president of the Italian bishops’ conference, Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, said in a recent interview with an italian newspaper that the church in Italy “was considering launching a thorough and serious investigation into the Italian situation”. He did not give details of what form the investigation might take, and his term as head of the bishops’ conference ends in May.

Monsignor Lorenzo Ghizzoni, a senior Italian church official responsible for the protection of minors, said in a telephone interview last week that Italian bishops had so far focused on education to prevent sexual abuse. and on the creation of a network of people to whom victims could turn. Listening centers where complaints could be received were also set up, he said.

“It is not enough to make a survey on figures, statistics. We need to provide places where victims can go,” Fr. Ghizzoni said.

Several abuse survivors who spoke at Tuesday’s press conference said that at least in the past church officials had not listened to their complaints.

“The truth is that I realized that the church is really not capable of dealing with this kind of problem,” said Antonio Messina, who said he was abused for four years when he was a minor.

He said when he tried to bring his attacker to justice in 2014, the prelates he turned to for help either didn’t believe him or tried to bribe him into be silent.

He’s still happy to have gone public, he said.

“No amount of compensation can restore what has been taken away,” he said. “But if we can make sure it doesn’t happen to others, these bad stories can at least serve to change something in the church and in society, especially in Italy where the church has strong roots.”

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