Priests and Teachers on Trial in Italy over 'Paedophile Ring'
By Richard Owen
The Times [Rome, Italy]
October 19, 2004
Six nursery teachers, three school caretakers and three priests went on trial in Italy today in a case involving an alleged paedophile ring that has shocked the nation.
Preliminary hearings began in Brescia, in which the 12 defendants are accused of procuring children between the ages of three and five for paedophiles.
The defendants, who have not been named, are alleged to have told the children in their care that they were going to "play games" with adult men.
The scandal came to light when some of the 23 children involved told their parents about the "games", which they said had been filmed and photographed in the mens' homes. The trial is being held behind closed doors because of the sensitivity of the charges.
Investigating magistrates had been gathering evidence for the past year, using child psychologists to coax details from the children involved.
The alleged abuse occured at a nursery school in Brescia, an industrial town near Milan with a medieval and Renaissance centre and a strong sense of civic pride.
The scandal has split the town, with some accusing the authorities of mounting a "witch hunt" against the priests and teachers.
"The social machinery in Bresia is in danger of collapse," said Dario Olivero, a local journalist. "It is perceived as having betrayed the children. The families affected are seeking therapy and some are moving to other towns".
Magistrates said two of the accused teachers had previously worked at a school where allegations of paedophilia had also arisen.
Father Mario Neva, of the Catholic University of Brescia, defended the accused priests, saying that there was a "crusade" against them.
He said he was conducting a counter-inquiry of his own, designed to prove that the accusations were the result of "judicial errors". He said: "I am not denying that paedophile priests exist, but I do deny there are any in Brescia."
He said the parents bringing the charges had "lost their heads", and that the questioning of the children had been "disastrously mishandled". He said he was fighting to save Brescia from "a wound which it will take more than a generation to heal".
The accused priests have also been defended by Monsignor Giulio Sanguinetti, the Bishop of Brescia, who said he believed they were innocent.
But Paolo Corsini, the mayor of Brescia, said "whether the accused are innocent or guilty, it is clear that we have a serious problem in Brescia".
Massimiliano Frassi, head of the Italian Association Against Paedophilia, said that "certain people are trying to muddy the waters by suggesting that the childrens' stories are not reliable and are the result of auto-suggestion".
The Vatican has cracked down on paedophilia among the clergy, which the Pope has described as "not only a crime but also an appalling sin in the eyes of God".
But Italians still tend to regard sexual abuse by clergy as mainly an American problem, following the high profile paedophilia scandals which surfaced in the United States two years ago.
Campaigners against paedophilia have accused the Vatican of failing to respond adequately to the sexual abuse crisis. Earlier this year Cardinal Bernard Law, who resigned as Archbishop of Boston after several paedophile scandals in the Boston diocese, was given a prestigious sinecure as Archpriest in charge of St Mary Major, one of Rome's main basilicas.
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