Conjectures of a former bystander

La Croix International [France]

December 1, 2022

By Massimo Faggioli

The “Italian way” of dealing with the sex abuse crisis

After a long delay compared to many other countries, the Italian Episcopal Conference (CEI) this past November 17 presented its first-ever clergy sex abuse report. It focused on the prevention and training activity carried out by diocesan services (inter-diocesan and regional) for the protection of minors and the testimonies that victims recounted at diocesan listening centers

The report is the fruit of the collaboration between the CEI and two researchers of the Catholic University of Milan. Compared to other countries, it is much more limited in scope and more institutionally tied to the Catholic Church in Italy. It is a clear attempt to set its own

model in order to avoid the catastrophic impact that revelations of abuse had in other countries.

The Italian report: unlike any other

This report is very different from recent efforts by the Church in other parts of the world. It is not coming from an independent commission (as was done in France), nor from a national commission set up by the government (like the Royal Commission in Australia), nor is it a scientific study by Church-hired institution (such as the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in the United States).

And it is not even a national study on the phenomenon of abuse in the Church. Instead, it is catalogue of testimonies taken in the various territories of the Italian peninsula, but only as far back as 2019.

There will soon be another report on abuse cases over the last 20 years, which is still a very short time span in comparison to other studies. Victims’ groups have harshly criticized this approach, which paints a complex picture of where the Church in Italy is in the global path towards taking stock of the phenomenon of abuse.

It also reveals the Italian episcopate’s structural “blind spot” on the matter, as theologian Marcello Neri noted. Particularly worrying was the attempt by Archbishop Lorenzo Ghizzoni, head of the CEI’s child protection office, to disparage France’s independent commission and its report. But in doing so, Ghizzoni revealed the Italian bishops’ strong resistance to a full investigation.

Italy ranks high in cases of sex abuse

Thankfully, there are many other bishops who talk more openly about the Italian situation in private and follow different, more proactive policies. We are past the moment when it could be said, without fear of being proved wrong, that the Church in Italy does not have an abuse problem.

The publication of the CEI report was followed, the very next day, by the UN-sponsored “World Day for the Prevention of and Healing from Child Sexual Exploitation, Abuse and Violence”. Telefono Azzurro, a non-profit organization for listening and intervention against abuse of minors, held a conference to mark the event. Monsignor John Kennedy of Dublin, secretary of the disciplinary section of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, stated that Italy ranks something like fifth or sixth place in the entire world in terms of number of abuse cases. Tellingly, his statement got hardly any significant reaction in Italian mainstream media.

At the same time, it is encouraging that the Church in Italy has (finally) embarked on a path of acknowledgment, treatment and prevention, however corrected and integrated it may be along the way. This was noted by Maria Elisabetta Gandolfi, editor of the independent Catholic magazine Il Regno, which has often published articles on the abuse crisis. (Full disclosure: I am a staff member of Il Regno). Gandolfi also pointed out that the bishops presenting the CEI report acknowledged that “a culturally insensitive terrain is perhaps also one of the reasons for the overall delay of Italian society in asking for decisive and coherent action against pedophilia and violence against minors“.

This “culturally insensitive terrain” is a key factor in understanding the Italian delay in facing the abuse crisis. Until today, there has been a wide consensus in Italy that the problem of Church-related abuse was not a priority. The CEI report is just a beginning. It is also a test for the wider, so-called “mondo cattolico” (or Catholic world) in Italy: Catholic clergy and religious, lay intellectuals, politicians, social and pastoral workers, members of movements and associations.

An immense theological construction site that terrifies many in the Church

It will also be important to see the reactions and contributions of Italian Catholic theological associations and networks, all of them operating in an ecclesial system that has to work in a country in that the Vatican has historically seen as its own backyard. Intellectually, it will be helpful to adopt a perspective that looks at the crisis in its complexity and is careful to avoid a disingenuous approach that tries to defend the Church in Italy has having done (and is currently doing) all it can and should do. It will also be important to avoid a populist approach that tries to indict the Catholic Church as a criminal enterprise dedicated to perpetrating and concealing abuses.

Looking for a monocausal explanation — such as the teaching of the Church on sexuality, celibacy, or homosexuality — reveals a simplification that reinforces the status quo. As Danièle Hervieu-Léger e Jean-Louis Schlegel noted in their book published recently in France, the challenge is institutional but also cultural and theological. The abuse scandal has opened an immense theological construction site that terrifies many in the Church, and not just in the clerical hierarchy. It will take generations to dig and to rebuild.

Unfortunately, the institutional Church is not the only entity in Italy that has long ignored the abuse scandal. Public institutions (such as the police, justice system, and school system), as well as the lay, secular, and independent media system have also ignored the scandal. Only in the last few years have young journalists, Catholic and non-Catholic, broken the silence facilitated by a media and political culture historically that’s been reluctant to investigate the Catholic Church.

What began to open my own eyes

There is a long way to go, for all Italians, not just the bishops or officials at the Vatican. My personal experience as a Catholic scholar who migrated to the United States has taught me a lot. My first short trip to the country was in the spring of 2004. One of the stops was in Boston, where the Boston Globe‘s “Spotlight” investigations changed forever our knowledge and understanding of abuse in the Church. That began to open my eyes. But when I returned to Italy, I realized that no one, not even enlightened and progressive Catholics, were interested to hear and talk about the abuse crisis.

The scandal had erupted already in the 1990s in Ireland, for example, but in Italy it simply did not register. Back then the idea on the peninsula was that this was an American problem, not an Italian problem. This is certainly how the Vatican saw it. And it also how most Italian Catholics saw it, until very recently.

I realized the scale and depth of the crisis only when I moved to the United States in 2008. As a lay Catholic theologian teaching young students, with a young family and children going to a parochial school in one of the US dioceses hardest hit by the scandal, the crisis became inescapable. Not just intellectually, but also emotionally, as a scholar, a professor, a parent, and a member of the Church.

I witnessed the effects of the McCarrick case in 2018 and I became active in the field, as a scholar and as a teacher. Before I came to the US, I was one of those Italian cradle Catholics who had never known anyone who had revealed being abused. Nor had I heard anything about abuse in the Church, unless it was in the news coming from abroad.

The blind spots seen in the Italian bishops today were my blind spots up until just a few years ago. In a sense, I was one of the many bystanders. Some knew and stayed silent, while others heard something but did not think it was worth getting involved in. Most were just culturally insensitive. This role of the bystanders (for abuse in the Church, but also in schools: the teacher as a bystander in school bullying) is one of the things that researchers have looked at more carefully the last few years.

It’s essential that the Church in Italy gets this right

Those few people who raised their voice were ignored and silenced, and not just by the bishops. The abuse crisis is much more complicated than a sharp division into two camps, between victims and survivors on one side, and perpetrators and enablers on the other side. There is a vast gray zone that Jesuit Father Hans Zollner — the top expert on abuse and prevention — already talked about years ago in the German cultural weekly Die Zeit. “The gray area, it’s not just the others. The gray area is also us,” he said.

Italy is a crucial test case for understanding the effects of the abuse scandal on the conscience of our contemporaries, Catholics and non-Catholics, regarding their perception of the Church. This will be tied to Pope Francis’ legacy on handling the abuse crisis. It will also be part of the legacy of Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, who was elected the CEI president thanks to the pope’s strong endorsement.

It will be interesting to see if the Church in Italy will be able to respond to the abuse scandal, not just at the level of public relations and in the courtroom, but also at the level of theological, religious, and cultural discourse.It will be a challenge for the Italian Church’s resistance to accept all that we now know about abuse today, also thanks to the evolution of morals — especially regarding our greater awareness of the dignity of children and minors, women, and vulnerable adults. It is an awakening to which the Catholic tradition has contributed something important, even though often in unconscious, unintended, and indirect ways.

The Italian way of dealing with the abuse crisis is particularly important because, in our polycentric and global Catholicism, the peninsula where the Vatican is located is still ground zero of this epoch-making paradigm shift. Failing victims and survivors in Italy would send a particularly disturbing signal to all Catholics around the world.

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