Pope Francis arrives for an audience with participants in a meeting organized by the Italian bishops’ National Catechetical Office, at the Vatican Jan. 30, 2021. (Credit: CNS photo / Vatican Media.)

Italian bishops pondering national abuse inquiry

Crux [Denver CO]

January 31, 2022

By Elise Ann Allen

[Phot above: Pope Francis arrives for an audience with participants in a meeting organized by the Italian bishops’ National Catechetical Office, at the Vatican Jan. 30, 2021. (Credit: CNS photo / Vatican Media.)]

Following the recent example of other European Church leaders, bishops in Italy are considering the launch of a formal independent inquiry into clerical sexual abuse in the country, yet victims have voiced doubt that the Italian ecclesial hierarchy is ready to take such a significant step.

The idea for the inquiry was pitched during the Italian bishops’ fall plenary assembly in November 2021 by Bishop Lorenzo Ghizzoni of Ravenna-Cervia, who also heads the National Service for the Protection of Minors and Vulnerable Adults in the Church.

However, the proposal was met with some resistance from other prelates who questioned whether the Church in Italy was ready for the fallout that a major independent inquiry would inevitably provoke, and further discussion of the issue was postponed until CEI’s spring plenary assembly in May.

Speaking to Crux, a spokesman for the Italian bishops’ conference (CEI) said the inquiry is “a reflection that has been going on for a while” and which is still “in progress.”

“We want to arrive at real data, starting from the quality of the work that has already been done,” the spokesman said, noting that the vast majority of Italian dioceses already have resources available to abuse victims, including listening centers and commissions.

“It’s necessary to take into account the cultural, territorial, and ecclesial peculiarities of Italy, which has 227 dioceses and over 25,000 parishes,” the spokesman said.

Should Italian Church leaders petition an independent inquiry into clerical sexual abuse, it would be the latest in a string of similar investigations in major dioceses and archdioceses throughout Europe, including recent reports released in Germany and France.

The problem of clerical abuse was touched on again briefly during a Jan. 24-26 meeting of CEI’s Permanent Episcopal Council.

Speaking during a press conference following the meeting, Bishop Stefano Russo, secretary general of CEI, that if an inquiry is conducted, “we will do it in a careful way to ensure that it is meaningful in terms of results.”

“We are not so interested in focusing on quantity, but on quality. If there is an inquiry, we want the data to be as reliable as possible,” he said, insisting that the Catholic Church in Italy is doing “very serious work” to build a network to support survivors and prevent further abuse.

“Attention to victims is in first place,” Russo said, reiterating CEI’s commitment to step up preventative efforts. “We want to stand beside all victims,” he said, insisting that the work already being done “does not exclude the desire to carry out an inquiry. We’ll see if it can be achieved.”

In a communique summarizing the Permanent Episcopal Council’s deliberations, the commitment “to implement and strengthen protective action” was emphasized.

“The search for justice in truth does not accept summary judgements but is encouraged by supporting that authentic change promoted by the network of diocesan services for the protection of minors and by listening centers, which are increasing,” the statement said.

It voiced support to survivors of clerical abuse, saying, “the Church always wants to be close to the victims, to all the victims, to whom it intends to continue to offer listening, support, and closeness, never forgetting the suffering they experienced.”

However, despite the vocal commitments of Italian Church leaders and the ongoing discussion of a formal independent inquiry, survivors have voiced doubt over the desire and readiness of the Church in Italy for such a major step.

Speaking to Crux, Francesco Zanardi, a clerical abuse survivor and president of the Rete L’ABUSO organization for victim support, spoke of whether Italian Church leaders are ready an inquiry, saying, “We don’t think so and we don’t want an inquiry from the Church.”

The Church, he said, comes out with this and similar initiatives tepidly, “under a lampshade,” and while this is still a positive sign, “unfortunately, they don’t come out with these initiatives when they should.”

Zanardi said an inquiry could be helpful “If it’s independent,” like the recent investigations in France and Germany, and if it’s serious.

If the inquiry is only done for show, “it’s useless,” he said, adding, “An inquiry must have different goals, not only to see what happened in the past, but there must also be a goal to guarantee, which the Church today is not capable of making, that tomorrow this will not be repeated.”

“It’s not that we want to do this again in 20 years, look at what happened and ask forgiveness. It must have another scope,” he said.

Zanardi said his organization is currently pushing to have a government-backed commission that deals with the issue of abuse, and to which the Church could provide data for analysis, but it should not lead the commission, he said.

“Italy, the state, and the Church both have a stake in not talking about (the abuse issue),” he said, adding that “In all these years, they’ve never put a hand to it” in any serious way.

Zanardi said he has no formal contact with Church leaders in Italy, but is in touch with some participants of the February 2019 Vatican summit on child protection, which was attended by the presidents of all bishops’ conferences throughout the world.

“Pedophilia has to do with the Church, not religion,” Zanardi said, insisting that the act of clerical abuse is not a spiritual problem, but “It’s a crime, and every country must handle it on the basis of their own laws.”

“Every country has the ability to intervene,” he said, noting that the Church can act by opening archives, asking negligent bishops to resign, and providing compensation.

Asked whether Italy is ready to handle the wave of lawsuits and payouts that would result from a formal independent inquiry, Zanardi said, “In my view, no, and they don’t even want to do it.”

In terms of a timeline as to when an inquiry might be held, the CEI spokesman said it is still too soon to tell, adding, “Let’s see what they decide in May,” at the bishops’ spring plenary.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen