Friday, May 21, 2010

Italy bishop testifies in priest sex abuse case

Last updated May 20, 2010 4:19 p.m. PT

Italy bishop testifies in priest sex abuse case
By NICOLE WINFIELD
ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER


Prosecutor Francesco Scavo looks on during a hearing in the trial of Rev. Ruggero Conti, in a Rome courtroom, Thursday, May 20, 2010. Rev. Ruggero Conti is accused of sexual violence and prostitution concerning seven young boys who frequented his parish in a working class neighborhood of Rome. The case is being closely watched because Conti served as an adviser to Rome mayor Gianni Alemanno and worked in the Vatican's backyard. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
ROME -- An Italian bishop testified Thursday in the trial of a priest accused of molesting boys that he heard rumors of abuse two years before the priest was arrested but didn't find them credible enough to warrant removing him or informing the Vatican.

Monsignor Gino Reali's testimony marked the first time an Italian bishop has been called to take the stand in a trial of an Italian priest accused of abusing youngsters, said attorney Nino Marazzita, who is representing two of the seven alleged victims in the civil portion of the case.

The trial of the Rev. Ruggero Conti, taking place in the shadow of the Vatican, comes as the clerical abuse scandal swirls around the Holy See and exposes the depth of the abuse problem in Italy, which has long treated the subject as so taboo it was rarely even discussed.

Recently, the head of the Italian bishops' conference issued a mea culpa on the part of the Italian church to all victims and their families for the failure of "those who should have intervened in a timely manner."

"Proven cases of mismanagement, underestimation of the facts, if not outright cover-up, will have to be rigorously prosecuted within and outside the Church and, as has already happened in some cases, will have to result in the removal and dismissal of the people involved," Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco told Il Sole 24 Ore newspaper last month.

Reali was asked several times if he had "underestimated" the credibility of accusations against Conti after he first learned of rumors in September 2006. He said he had spoken to 20-25 people about the accusations, including two young men who said they had been molested. But he defended his decision not to remove or suspend Conti, saying he had told him not to let young boys keep sleeping over at his home any more.

"I tried to stick with the facts because I believed I needed to act based on facts, not rumors," Reali said when pressed by a lawyer for one of the victims. "So many rumors arrive on a bishops' desk."

Conti is charged with sexual violence and other charges. In police interrogations, the boys - some as young as 13 at the time of the alleged abuse - said Conti would masturbate them and force them to perform oral sex on him in his home where he frequently invited them to eat dinner and watch movies.

Reali defended his decision to reassign Conti's deputy, the Rev. Claudio Peno Brichetto, who blew the whistle on Conti and went to police with accusations that he was molesting boys. Reali said Peno Brichetto was an untrustworthy troublemaker who had been transferred several times in previous years.

Marazzita urged prosecutors to charge Reali with aiding and abetting a crime for having failed to report Conti or taking effective measures to prevent more abuse from occurring. Police have said Conti continued molesting boys up until at least two months before his June 30, 2008 arrest.

Conti has denied in court that he abused any of the boys. But he has admitted that he was fond of them, saying that he would cuddle or pat them and that they must have had a "distorted interpretation" of his affections.

Reali insisted he had told the two young men who came to him with accusations against Conti that they should go to police as well as make a signed declaration to him so he could launch a canonical investigation. Victims' Attorney Claudio Urciuoli reminded Reali that one of the victims had testified that the bishop told him precisely the opposite, that he shouldn't go to police and should let the church handle it internally.

"I deny that in the most certain terms," Reali responded.

Reali said he had convened a church tribunal after one of the alleged victims produced a sworn statement alleging abuse; the tribunal never took action because the alleged victim didn't show up, he said. The Vatican's own policy requires a bishop to inform the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith if an accusation has "a semblance of truth" to it so the Vatican can decide whether a canonical trial should be launched.

Reali said he didn't inform the Congregation of the accusation, though he said he had had an "informal" discussion with a Congregation official after Conti was arrested.

He said he didn't know whether Italian law required him as bishop to inform police about suspected abuse.

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