News Analysis: Will the Vatican investigate a cardinal implicated in its own abuse trial?

Crux [Denver CO]

February 26, 2021

By John L. Allen Jr.

An unusual sex abuse trial currently underway in the Vatican took a potentially explosive turn Wednesday, and the response may have a great deal to say about how serious the reforms launched by Pope Francis actually are.

Three witnesses testified that Italian Cardinal Angelo Comastri, who was relieved of his position as Archpriest of St. Peter’s Basilica last Saturday by Pope Francis, or his aides, had been aware of sexual abuse allegations at a pre-seminary on Vatican grounds and took no action. Though the merits of that testimony have to be critically examined, at the very least it creates the basis for an investigation of the 77-year-old Comastri, which, depending on the outcome, could lead to a charge of criminal negligence.

This isn’t just a canonical issue about Comastri’s clerical status. In this case, the alleged crimes took place inside the Vatican itself, meaning that if Comastri did something wrong, it’s the Vatican’s own legal system that has to supply civil justice.

Cardinal Angelo Comastri, left, places the ashes on the head of Pope Francis during the Ash Wednesday mass, in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2016. (Credit: L'osservatore Romano / Pool Photo via AP.)
Cardinal Angelo Comastri, left, places the ashes on the head of Pope Francis during the Ash Wednesday mass, in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2016. (Credit: L’osservatore Romano / Pool Photo via AP.)

To date, no senior cleric has ever been charged with a criminal offense in a Vatican tribunal, leading many observers to suspect that the system is designed to insulate such high-ranking figures from exposure. If no action is taken regarding Comastri, those impressions may be set in cement; if the system does act, however, many observers might conclude that real reform finally has arrived.

To recap, the charge at the heart of this case is that a student at the Pre-Seminary of St. Pius X on Vatican grounds, today a priest named Gabriele Martinelli, sexually abused another student, who’s been identified only by the initials “L.G.,” while they were both minors between 2007 and 2012. At the time, L.G. was a year younger than Martinelli. Also charged is Father Enrico Radice, today 71, who was the rector of the pre-seminary at the time the abuse is said to have taken place, and who allegedly covered it up.

The Pre-Seminary of St. Pius X is well-known in Vatican circles, since it sits within the 108-acre space of the Vatican City State and supplies the altar boys who serve at papal Masses within St. Peter’s Basilica.

The case exploded in 2017, when Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi, one of the protagonists of the Vatileaks scandals, published a book titled Peccato Originale (“Original Sin”) which contained a letter from a Polish former student of the pre-seminary named Kamil Jarzembowski, addressed to Pope Francis, in which Jarzembowski claimed to have witnessed acts of abuse.

The Vatican tribunal has already heard from Martinelli himself, who firmly denied the charges and suggested they’re the result of internal tensions at the pre-seminary between progressives and traditionalists.

Wednesday was devoted to the testimony of four individuals called by the Vatican’s Promoter of Justice, meaning they were prosecution witnesses. To say the least, these witnesses didn’t paint a very attractive picture of life at the pre-seminary during the years in question.

Alessandro Flaminio Ottaviani, who spent a year at the pre-seminary between 2010 and 2011, described what he called an “unhealthy environment” full of “psychological pressures,” including quips and verbal references about homosexuality, including giving certain students female nicknames based on their supposed homosexual inclinations, and also derisive references to “cardinals and bishops of the Curia” perceived to be gay.

Christian Gilles Donghi, who spent just a month in the pre-seminary in 2009 before leaving due to what he called a “trying” experience, described “extremely intense gossip,” including about members of the Roman Curia, as well as mockery of students on the basis of their physical appearance or allegedly effeminate traits.

None of the four people claimed to have directly witnessed the alleged abuse of L.G. by Martinelli, but they did claim Martinelli had “homosexual attitudes,” which caused derisive references among students, and also to have witnessed Martinelli making sexually inappropriate advances and gestures such as touching the genitals of another student. They also claimed that Martinelli enjoyed authority among fellow students because of the favor shown by Radice, with one saying Martinelli was called the “little commander” because Radice allowed him to run various aspects of the pre-seminary’s operations.

What’s of special interest here is that three of the four witnesses claimed that Comastri was aware of concerns about the pre-seminary, and specifically of the allegations about Martinelli and L.G.

  • Donghi said he was told by an official of the Italian Diocese of Como, which sponsors the pre-seminary, that Comastri blocked an effort to remove Radice as rector, describing the charges as “falsities,” and that the official was “alarmed by Cardinal Comastri’s attitude.”
  • Ottaviani said he once saw Jarzembowski leaving Comastri’s office after having informed the cardinal of the accusations against Martinelli.
  • Father Pierre Paul, who conducts a choir in St. Peter’s Basilica and has frequent contact with students at the pre-seminary, said that Monsignor Vittorio Lanzani, Comastri’s deputy at the basilica, “knew about Kamil and L.G.”

Given that Comastri was removed from office just four days before Wednesday’s hearing, it’s tempting to think Pope Francis knew what was coming and got Comastri out of the way in advance. Whatever the case, an officially unexplained resignation, with no judicial follow-up, is hardly the full transparency and accountability that the pontiff and his aides have said is supposed to be at the heart of his reforms.

To be fair, it’s not entirely clear what responsibility Comastri had for the pre-seminary. It was launched by an Italian priest from Como named Giovanni Folci, who also founded a religious order called the “Opera Don Folci,” and over the years it’s been a bit vague whether the order, the diocese or the Vatican – or all three, in some ill-defined combination – have operational control.

In testimony on Thursday, the current Bishop of Como, Oscar Cantoni, told the court that he met with Comastri in 2017, who told him the Vatican was responsible solely for the service of students in St. Peter’s Basilica, not for the internal operations at the pre-seminary.

Moreover, all we have right now is the uncorroborated testimony of three people that Comastri or his subordinates knew about the abuse allegations. Exactly what he knew, and what, if anything, he did with that information, remains unknown.

Those are precisely the sorts of issues that ought to be addressed in a formal investigation by the Vatican’s Promoter of Justice.

After all, the Vatican has decided to let the Martinelli trial play out in full public view, in part to get credit for its commitment to transparency. The price of that credit, however, is that the Vatican must be seen to act on the information the process generates, even if the trail seems to lead to a Prince of the Church.

The ball’s now in the Vatican’s court, and much would seem to depend on how it reacts.

Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.