Sunday, June 27, 2010

Abuse Loosens Church’s Culture of Silence in Italy

June 26, 2010
Abuse Loosens Church’s Culture of Silence in Italy

ROME — One afternoon last month, a rare thing happened in Rome’s main courthouse: for perhaps the first time ever, an Italian bishop took the witness stand in the case of a priest accused of the sexual abuse of children.

Soon after, another rare thing happened. The leader of the Italian bishops’ conference acknowledged at a news conference that it was “possible” that bishops in Italy had covered up abuse, while his deputy said that in the past decade, 100 Italian priests had faced church trials in connection with the sexual abuse of minors.

The remarks were the first time the bishops’ conference had ever publicly quantified the number of Italian cases — and one of the few where it answered reporters’ questions on the matter.

In Italy, the “ombra del cupolone,” or shadow of the dome of St. Peter’s, reaches far, and the church has long maintained a forceful grip on public life, if not in Italians’ private lives. But slowly, the sexual abuse crisis that has stirred up Europe in recent months has begun to take root in the Vatican’s backyard.

While Italy still falls short on transparency in both state and church, observers say a new chapter may be beginning in which the once taboo topic of sexual abuse by priests is slowly entering the national conversation.

“We’re less inhibited, not as cautious about talking about it as in the past,” said Sandro Magister, a veteran Vatican journalist in Italy. “There’s been a kind of contagion from other countries” where it was openly discussed, he added.

Indeed, when the abuse scandals hit the United States nearly a decade ago, some Vatican officials dismissed it as a problem of English-speaking countries. This spring’s crisis, driven by cases in Europe, has proved otherwise. To some, it was only a matter of time before Italian bishops would be called to account.

In a surprisingly forthright interview in March with Avvenire, the newspaper of the Italian bishops’ conference, the Vatican’s own internal prosecutor said he was worried about “a certain culture of silence” in Italy.

But the prosecutor, Msgr. Charles J. Scicluna, who oversees abuse cases for the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, also noted that Italian law did not require mandatory reporting of sexual abuse, so bishops were not required to notify civil authorities.

“We do not force bishops to denounce their own priests, but encourage them to contact the victims and invite them to denounce the priests by whom they have been abused,” he said.

But confusion over how bishops should handle abuse cases in Italy was at the heart of the trial in which Bishop Gino Reali of the diocese of Rome testified.

Taking the witness stand in Rome in May, Bishop Reali said he had heard rumors of abuse two years before the Rev. Ruggero Conti was arrested in 2008 but did not inform the police or ask the Vatican to take action because he did not believe that the accusations were credible.

“I needed to act on facts, not rumors,” he told the court.

In another rare development here, several people who have accused the priest are now suing the bishop for covering up abuse.

Although that courtroom scene was one of the most vivid examples of the church’s answering to the state since the Vatican ceded its temporal authority in the 19th century, Bishop Reali’s testimony did not make the evening news or the front of Italian newspapers.

Unlike in the United States, where the press is perceived as a watchdog, in Italy it is perceived as driven by political agendas. News coverage critical of the church is still rare.

Alberto Bobbio, the Rome bureau chief of Famiglia Cristiana, a liberal Catholic weekly, recalled that when he started calling Italian dioceses in 2003 to report on sexual abuse in Italy in the wake of the scandals in the United States, “People would ask, ‘Why are you Catholic journalists doing this?’ ”

That attitude is loosening. Pressed by reporters last month, Bishop Mariano Crociata, who oversees judicial matters for the Italian bishops’ conference, said that 100 priests had were called to account in canonical trials over sexual abuse charges in the past decade.

His remarks opened a door, and now journalists are pushing harder than they ever have before.

To some, the fact that the leader of the bishops’ conference, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, opened the group’s most recent meeting by calling on Italian families “to know that we in the church will do everything and more to merit the trust that has generally been accorded us” was a sign of how far that trust had fallen, even in Italy.

Indeed, even if the abuse cases are not the center of public debate, Italians have few doubts that they exist. Though steeped in the culture of the church, most Italians tend to see Catholicism as a power structure as much as a religion.

“There is ‘omertà’ in Italy, that’s is what it is,” added Doriana Alessi, 58, referring to a code of silence. Ms. Alessi said that she was Catholic but that she had long ago lost her illusions. “I would regain trust in the church if they defrocked pedophile priests,” she said.

But slowly, more cases are coming to the public’s attention. Recently, lawyers for a politically connected former priest close to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, the Rev. Pierino Gelmini, said he would face a civil trial on accusations of sexual abuse at drug treatment centers he ran. He had asked to be defrocked two years ago to better defend himself.

This spring, a group of deaf men in Verona were granted a rare hearing on national television to denounce the priests they said serially molested them as children in a school for the deaf.

“We just want justice,” said one of the men, Gianni Bisoli.

In spite of the signs of a shift, Italy has a long way to go. Unlike in the United States, Germany and elsewhere, in Italy the bishops do not have a committee specifically empowered to investigate abuse charges.

Nor does it have a straightforward way for victims to come forward, as in other countries where the bishops’ conferences have created hot lines, e-mail addresses and other formal channels for registering complaints.

Many doubt that Italy could ever create the kind of zero-tolerance policy adopted by the United States bishops a decade ago, in which a priest is removed from duty at the first credible accusation of abuse.

The Rev. Davide Cito, a professor of canon law at Opus Dei’s University of the Holy Cross in Rome, noted that in Italy, members of the Mafia were often applauded by their supporters when they were freed from prison. “People lack the force to be outraged at evil,” Father Cito added dispiritedly. “If we don’t have zero tolerance for Mafiosi, how can we have it for priests?”

Gaia Pianigiani contributed reporting.

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