Obfuscation and omerta stand between Italian church and sex abuse probe

“In Italy, there was a culture of omerta on sexual abuse, absolutely. In Spain, newspapers denounce alleged cases of abuse and an investigation is opened. In Italy, this does not happen.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has been very critical of Italy, worrying about “numerous cases of children having been sexually abused by religious personnel of the Catholic Church”. and the paltry number of investigations and prosecutions.

Some horrific cases of abuse have emerged. One of the most notorious concerns a school for the deaf in Verona. Priests and lay workers at the Antonio Provolo Institute inflicted decades of sickening physical and sexual abuse on children unable to express the torment they suffered.

Mr Zanardi’s association has been tracking cases of clerical sexual abuse in Italy and has drawn up a map adorned with pins – each pin represents one of 360 cases that have been recorded over the past 15 years. These are only the cases that have been reported.

In France, a major investigation last year found that French clergy had sexually abused 216,000 children over the past 70 years.

The Catholic Church in France has shown “deep, utter and even cruel indifference for years”, protecting itself rather than victims from systemic abuse, said the head of the commission that authored the report.

An investigation this month in Germany accused Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI of failing to act against priests abusing minors when he was archbishop of Munich between 1977 and 1982.

As pressure for a similar investigation grows in Italy, many in the Catholic Church are appalled by the idea, fearing it could uncover a flurry of sexual abuse cases.

“They don’t want to open this Pandora’s box. They know it’s going to be bad because it’s bad everywhere – we’ve seen it in scandals all over the world,” said Robert Mickens, a Rome-based Vatican expert and editor of La Croix International, a Catholic news site.

“I think the bishops have seen how this scandal has destroyed churches around the world and they are terrified.”

It wasn’t just the Church’s stubbornness that blocked a sex abuse investigation in Italy. There are also cultural factors at play.

“It’s a conservative society. People don’t like to air their dirty laundry,” Mr Mickens said.

“There is a lot of shame around sexual abuse. There’s a false sense of machismo – men don’t want to admit they’ve been abused. The Church still has a long reach. Many people depend on it. Maybe he owns the building they live in, or their job depends on it.

Some voices within the Catholic establishment are calling for a full and independent investigation – including Hans Zollner, a German Jesuit priest who is Pope Francis’ point man on the global sex abuse crisis.

He said the Vatican was “shocked” by the release of the German report accusing Pope Benedict of turning a blind eye to predatory priests.

But such investigations are necessary “and there should be one in Italy”, he told Italian newspaper La Stampa in a recent interview.

“Now it is clear that in all regions of the world, between 3 and 5% of priests are aggressors. We have criminals among us. For this reason, we must take steps to purify the Church,” Fr. Zollner said.

“These investigations, if conducted objectively and publicly, are absolutely necessary. Italy also needs it. In this way, reality could be confronted rather than continually denying that in Italy there is no sexual abuse in the Church”.

Martha J. Finley