Francesco Zanardi, president of Rete L’Abuso (The Abuse Network), a national organization that represents Italian victims of clerical abuse.

Obfuscation and omerta stand between the Italian church and a watershed sex abuse inquiry

The Telegraph [London, England]

February 13, 2022

By Nick Squires

[Photo above: Francesco Zanardi, president of Rete L’Abuso (The Abuse Network), a national organization that represents Italian victims of clerical abuse.]

Under the sway of popes for centuries, it is the very crucible of the Roman Catholic Church, its towns and cities replete with soaring basilicas and religious works of art, its society intertwined with the faith.

But as the US, Australia, Germany, France and New Zealand have faced bruising sex abuse inquiries, Italy has remained apparently immune from the global scandal.

All that could be about to change. There are now calls for a potentially explosive investigation to be launched into decades of suspected sexual abuse perpetrated by priests against children.

It comes at a pivotal time, just days after Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who was pontiff until his resignation in 2013, expressed “profound shame” and admitted that grave errors were made in handling abuse cases when he was the Archbishop of Munich 40 years ago.

On Tuesday, a dozen Catholic associations in Italy will launch a demand for an independent investigation into clerical sex abuse under the banner “Oltre il Grande Silenzio” – Beyond the Great Silence.

They will pursue the campaign under the social media hashtag #ItalyChurchToo in an attempt to break through decades of denial, obfuscation and omerta, the code of silence more readily associated with the mafia.

The push is being led by Francesco Zanardi, who was abused by a Catholic priest for years, starting from the age of 11, when he was growing up in the northern port city of Savona.

The local bishop knew that the abuse was going on, and even wrote to the Vatican to ask for advice as to how to handle the case, but nothing was done.

The priest was eventually convicted and given a one and a half year jail sentence but it was suspended. “He didn’t spend a single day in prison,” said Mr Zanardi.

Not only is the clergyman still alive, he still lives in Savona, Mr Zanardi’s home town. “I see him quite often. You have to let go of the hate, otherwise you’d be walking around all day with a machine gun.”

He is the president of Rete L’Abuso (The Abuse Network), a national organisation that represents Italian victims of clerical abuse.

“We will be calling for the establishment of an independent parliamentary commission to investigate sex abuse by Catholic clergy in this country,” he told The Telegraph.

A handful of Catholic bishops have said recently that they would be open to an investigation – but that it would be an internal inquiry, conducted by the Church.

That cuts no ice with Mr Zanardi and other victims. “The Church has zero credibility on this scandal. Church leaders come out with many words, but they do nothing.

“In Italy there has been a culture of omerta over sex abuse, absolutely. In Spain, newspapers expose alleged cases of abuse and an investigation is opened. In Italy, that doesn’t happen.”

The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has been highly critical of Italy, expressing concern about “the 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 employees at the Antonio Provolo Institute inflicted decades of sickening physical and sexual abuse on children who were unable to articulate the torment they were suffering.

Mr Zanardi’s association has tracked clerical sex abuse cases in Italy and drawn up a map, festooned with pins – each pin represents one of the 360 cases that have been logged in the last 15 years. Those are just the cases that have been reported.

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

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

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.

While pressure for a similar inquiry is growing in Italy, there are many in the Catholic Church who are appalled at the idea, fearing it could expose an avalanche of sex abuse cases.

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

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

It is not just the obduracy of the Church that has blocked a sex abuse investigation in Italy. There are cultural factors at play too.

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

“There’s a lot of shame around sex abuse. There’s a false sense of machismo – men don’t want to admit that they were abused. The Church still has a long reach. A lot of people rely on it. Maybe it owns the building they live in, or their job depends on it.”

There are some voices within the Catholic establishment calling for a full and independent inquiry – most notably Hans Zollner, a German Jesuit priest who is Pope Francis’s point man on the global sex abuse crisis.

He said the Vatican was “in shock” over the publication of the German report which accused Pope Benedict of turning a blind eye to predatory priests.

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

“By now it is clear that in every region of the world, between 3 and 5 per cent of priests are abusers. We have criminals among us. For this reason we have to take steps to purify the Church,” Father Zollner said.

“These investigations, if conducted objectively and publicly, are absolutely needed. Italy needs one too. In this way, reality could be faced rather than continuously denying that in Italy there is no sexual abuse in the Church.”

The Church “needs to admit that we are not saints, that we have sinned and that among us there are criminals. Only after confession can one arrive at absolution and forgiveness.”

In May there will be an election to choose the next head of the Italian Bishops Conference.

Whoever gets the job will come under pressure to make a decision on whether to move forward with some sort of inquiry.

Two possible contenders for the post – Cardinal Paolo Lojudice, the bishop of Siena, and Erio Castellucci, the archbishop of Modena, have both said “the time is right”, finally, for an investigation in Italy.

“The bishops are getting kind of nervous. They want to control the narrative. They will stall. But they can’t stall forever,” said Mr Mickens.

Mr Zanardi believes momentum is finally building. “Other countries like Germany and France have held investigations. Italy is the big exception. This is a historic moment.”