Italy’s Roman Catholic Church may be worst culprit of clerical abuse, survivor group says

ROME — Giuseppe remembers the day his mother betrayed him. He was 12 years old and his parish priest in the southern Italian city of Salerno forced him to touch his erect penis. Giuseppe remembers the starched black fabric of the priest’s cassock and how he first thought the priest might be hiding a toy from him. Giuseppe told his mother about the priest’s penis and told her that it made him uncomfortable. He told The Daily Beast that his mother called him a liar and punished him for “making up stories”.

It was the start of a sexually abusive relationship that lasted over four years and included forced fellatio and rape. Eventually, Giuseppe ran away from home and abuse. He found himself in a spiral of drug addiction that eventually landed him in prison. He is now part of a group of survivors calling for a parliamentary review of the Italian Catholic Church.

Italy is one of the few Catholic countries in the world to have so far resisted calls to investigate credible reports of large-scale clerical sexual abuse of minors. On Tuesday, a group of Catholic organizations will march on the Vatican and demand the government launch the same type of independent investigations that have lifted the veil of secrecy over clerical abuses in the United States, Germany, Ireland and France. The group has named its movement Oltre il Grande Silenzio or Beyond the Great Silence and many predict Italian clerics could be among the world’s worst offenders, in part because of the Roman Catholic Church’s siege in Rome.

The Vatican has long resisted calls to investigate the church in Italy, according to Francesco Zanardi, a vocal survivor from the northern city of Savona who runs the support group Rete L’Abuso or Abuse Network. He launched a social media campaign called #ItalyChurchToo. He likened the Vatican’s ability to silence accusations against Italian priests to the mafia’s use of omerta or the code of silence.

Zanardi sends out a daily bulletin publishing credible accusations of abuse and news when pedophile priests are brought to justice – a rarity in Italy, in part because of what Zanardi calls “interference” by the Catholic Church in the Italian judicial system. He says crucifixes hang in all Italian courtrooms not as a demonstration of faith but “as a threat and a reminder that the Church is more powerful than even God.”

On Friday, he will launch a database with media group Left, which will list convicted Italian priests, criminal cases and accounts of victims of abuse. This will be the first such public account in the country, and he says they will start with over 350 proven cases of abuse by priests, but there are “hundreds and hundreds of victims” who have too scared to come forward because of the church’s influence in the country. “In the absence of action by the State and the Church, the hour is at a turning point”, he says. “We will be the ‘Trojan horse in a system that sees institutions helpless in the face of the problem of pedophile priests”.

The Vatican did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

He says they are asking the Italian government to circumvent church interference. “The solution cannot come from the church because it has demonstrated in sensational cases how deep the concealment is,” he says, referring to recent revelations that retired Pope Benedict XVI recently admitted to having lied about a meeting about a pedophile priest in Germany. He says many victims of clerical abuse would love to come forward, but the system is against them. “It’s only after a long time that you realize that other problems you have, such as alcoholism or drug addiction, were caused by this episode.”

The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child also weighed in on the Italian church and the lack of an investigation despite hundreds of complaints in a February 7 report. “The committee is concerned about the numerous cases of children who have been sexually abused by religious personnel of the Catholic Church in the State party and the low number of criminal investigations and prosecutions,” the report states, and calls the Italian government to “establish an independent and impartial commission of inquiry to examine all cases of sexual abuse of children by religious personnel of the Catholic Church.

If the government complies, Zanardi says it will be a late start to solving a problem he says could have saved thousands of victims. “We can never get back what we lost,” he told The Daily Beast. “But we can still prevent innocent children from becoming angry victims.”

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