Italian Bishops to Examine Clerical Abuse, but Only to a Point

ROME — Italian bishops said on Friday that they would carry out a long-demanded investigation into clerical sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable persons, but victims and their advocates immediately said the plan fell short of what was needed.

Seeking to address the concerns about the revelations of abuse that have devastated the church worldwide, the bishops announced that they would commission a report examining cases from 2020-21, to be published in November, as well as a second report that would analyze how clerical abuse had been handled in Italy in the past two decades.

“We don’t want to evade,” Matteo Zuppi, the newly elected president of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, told reporters. “We’ll take the beating we have to take.”

Even though Rome is home to the Vatican, the seat of the church, the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church in Italy have been far behind their counterparts elsewhere in examining their record in handling abuse.

Victims groups and their advocates in Italy have been frustrated by the church’s failure to follow in the footsteps of other countries — including Australia, Ireland and the United States — that have commissioned fully independent investigations carried out by third parties.

In Italy, academic researchers, who have yet to be identified, will work on the investigation in collaboration with church representatives, but the church stopped short of turning things over to an independent commission.

“It is insufficient,” Federica Tourn, a member of a recently created umbrella group called ItalyChurchToo said Friday. “Why didn’t they order up a completely independent investigation? It’s one thing to give third parties access to documentation and archives, quite another to let the church decide what gets to be seen.”

Although the announcement on Friday amounts to progress in looking into abuse in the Italian church, the conditions set by the bishops significantly restrict the scope of the inquiry.

St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican last year.Credit…Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters

The report to be published in November will only analyze cases reported to local church centers from the years 2020-21, essentially “only a small percentage of reported cases of abuse,” said Ludovica Eugenio, a journalist for a Catholic weekly magazine that is part of ItalyChurchToo. She said that these centers were not “neutral spaces,” as “dioceses are often where abuse took place.”

The investigation on the abuse cases of abuse between 2000-21 will draw on data compiled by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog, which also oversees abuse cases, to better know “in a quantitative and qualitative way,” the extent of “alleged or ascertained crimes” committed by Italian clerics, the bishops said in a statement.

By comparison, investigations in Germany and France looked at cases going back to 1945 and 1950 respectively, and critics said that capping the investigation to the past 22 years risked leaving out thousands of cases. The American bishops acted in 2002 to commission researchers with the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York to produce a report examining abuse cases going back 52 years.

“It’s a known fact that it can take years for victims to come to terms with and come forward with cases of abuse, and these people are automatically cut out,” said Francesco Zanardi, the founder and president of Rete l’Abuso, or Abuse Network, Italy’s most outspoken victims’ rights group, which has independently tracked hundreds of cases of pedophile priests by combing through court records.

“I was abused in 1980, so I wouldn’t qualify,” he said.

Italy has already been criticized by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child for failing to sufficiently protect minors from sexual exploitation. In particular, the committee expressed concern in 2019 “about the numerous cases of children having been sexually abused by religious personnel of the Catholic Church” and the inadequate efforts to prosecute those crimes.

In 2019, Pope Francis held a landmark meeting at the Vatican on clerical sexual abuse and called “for an all-out battle against the abuse of minors.” But the Italian church still dragged its feet.

A nudge came earlier this week from Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley — the archbishop of Boston and a prominent member of a pontifical commission to protect minors — via a video message to bishops who had gathered in Rome for a week of meetings.

“We have nothing to fear by telling the truth,” he said. “The truth will set us free. Acknowledging people’s stories of abuse, listening to survivors and committing to working together is not easy, but I can tell you after 40 years that it is the only way.” He added, “The reality is that we will be judged on our response to the abuse crisis in the Church.”

Cardinal Sean O’Malley, archbishop of Boston, meeting with Pope Francis and the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors at the Vatican last month.Credit…Vaitcan Media/EPA, via Shutterstock

But reticence to confront the issue may be deep-seated in Italian society.

The Italian faithful and media are not particularly interested in digging too deeply, said Lucetta Scaraffia, the co-author of “Agnus Dei,” a book published this month on clerical abuse in Italy.

At a media conference in Rome this week, she described Italian Catholics as “disinterested and indifferent to this problem.” With few exceptions on the part of small publications, she added, the Italian media has not delved into the subject with much vigor.

Italy lags behind other countries, said Franca Giansoldati, the other author of “Agnus Dei,” adding that Italian politics had also sidestepped the issue. “There is a kind of reluctance to deal with this phenomenon because politics knows that it is going against the church and in Italy the church is still a point of reference.”

Whereas in other countries, lawmakers and law enforcers have championed victims, she said, “Unfortunately there is a vacuum here.”