Survivors blast limited effort by Italian bishops to document abuse cases

Crux [Denver CO]

May 28, 2022

By Elise Ann Allen

Barely had Cardinal Matteo Zuppi of Bologna, the new head of the Italian bishops’ conference and key Pope Francis ally, wrapped up a Friday press conference announcing a new study of clerical sexual abuse cases when survivors of abuse proclaimed they were “very unhappy” and declared the bishops’ initiative “useless.”

“It’s rather sad. It’s not good, we are very unhappy,” said Francesco Zanardi, an abuse survivor himself and head of Rete L’Abuso (“The Abuse Network”), Italy’s lone survivors group.

For months, both abuse survivors and advocacy groups in Italy have pressured the Italian bishops and state officials to conduct an independent national inquiry into clerical abuse going back decades, offering a comprehensive report similar to those being published in other European countries.

The previous leadership of the Italian Bishops Conference (CEI), led by Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, had said it was considering the proposal but would let the new officials elected during the conference’s May 23-27 plenary assembly make the decision.

Zuppi, whose selection as president was announced earlier this week, told journalists Friday that the bishops would now be releasing an annual report on abuse, but that the initial report would only cover cases reported in the past two years, from 2020-2021. He said the conference will hopes to publish the first report in November, and the data will be sent to a specialized research center for analysis.

He also said that data from the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, which oversees clerical abuse cases, will also be available for analysis by independent research centers in a bid to improve the Church’s policies and procedures. However, that data available only dates to the year 2001, whereas reports commissioned by other European bishops’ conferences, such as France and Germany, have delved into diocesan archives going back decades.

Failure to follow the lead of other European conference of bishops, Zanardi complained, means “are being “discriminated against…Victims from the past 20 years will be examined; the others, however, will not even get the satisfaction of their rape being recognized.

Zanardi and his Rete L’Abuso organization belong a broader collective of survivor and advocacy groups calling for an independent national inquiry as part of a digital initiative titled “#ItalyChurchToo” aimed at raising awareness and increasing prevention efforts.

Prior to CEI’s plenary assembly, the group published an open letter to the Italian bishops and to the leaders of several prominent Vatican departments making a series of requests, including the national inquiry, the opening of diocesan archives, and the expansion of diocesan listening centers for victims throughout the country.

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Zuppi’s announcement came in direct response to a request made from Pope Francis during a meeting with the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, which will now be formally incorporated into the Roman Curia as part of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, last month.

During the meeting, the pope asked that listening centers for survivors be established in all dioceses and that an annual audit be made on safeguarding efforts among the ecclesial hierarchy, evaluating what’s being done right, what needs to change, and efforts toward accountability.

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Yet for Zanardi and other members of the #ItalyChurchToo collective, the Italian bishops’ response is not enough.

“This is a guarantee that they will not have a national inquiry, and they said clearly that data of the [civil justice system] will not even be used, only the data that the Church has, so it’s useless,” Zanardi said, saying this “is not justice” for victims.

“It’s not positive for us, not at all. Rather, it only makes it obvious that the Italian Church, in the face of all bishops’ conferences in the whole world, is the first to go against the current” in terms of coming clean.

In addition to the report and the expansion of diocesan listening centers, which are currently present in just 70 percent of Italian dioceses, Zuppi also voiced the conference’s intention to offer further training courses for diocesan representatives handling abuse complaints and meetings with victims, and for all those who conduct pastoral work with young people.

He noted that the conference is a permanent participating guest at a national observatory for the fight against pedophilia and child pornography, established in 1998, and intends to broaden its collaboration with public institutions studying and monitoring prevention efforts.

Zuppi said the conference’s session also touched on the ongoing Synod of Bishops on Synodality, care for the elderly, the migration issue, peace efforts in light of the war in Ukraine, and efforts to ensure nuclear disarmament.

In a press conference held Friday, prior to Zuppi’s press conference on the bishops’ plenary, members of the #ItalyChurchToo collective said that so far, they have received no response to their letter from the Italian bishops or from the Vatican officials to whom it was also sent.

In his comments to Crux, Zanardi said he has no hope that an independent national inquiry will be conducted in the future, and that “If there was hope, I’d lose it.”

Zanardi said he has been invited to meet with Zuppi, and intends to organize the meeting as soon as possible.