Vatican court convicts former altar boy who served the pope

Washington Post

January 23, 2024

By Anthony Faiola and Stefano Pitrelli

[For the original Washington Post investigation: A teen was accused of abuse inside Vatican City: Powerful church figures helped him become a priest, by Chico Harlan and Stefano Pitrelli, July 12, 2021. See also cache.

A Vatican appeals court on Tuesday convicted a priest of corrupting a minor when he served as an altar boy for the pope within the walls of the Holy See, handing down a 2½-year prison sentence in a case that brought allegations of sexual abuse — and the church’s resistance to rooting it out — into the geographic heart and spiritual center of the Roman Catholic Church.

The appeals court on Tuesday partially reversed the 2021 acquittal of Gabriele Martinelli, 31, in the Vatican’s first criminal trial on sexual abuse. The court concurred that there was no evidence Martinelli had used coercion when he engaged in sexual relations with a slightly younger peer, between 2006 and 2012, while living in a Vatican youth seminary with other boys who served in papal Masses. But it determined that he could be found guilty of corruption of a minor for the last period of the misconduct, when he was an adult and the victim still underage.

The conviction can still be appealed to the Vatican’s highest court. But the victim, who was 13 when he says the abuse began, and his lawyers hailed the verdict as “historic.”

“The first feeling I had was this: For years I was told I was a pervert, a faker, a liar, a madman, who was exploiting this for his own ends,” said the victim, now 30, in an interview with The Washington Post. He spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect his privacy.

“But all these years of pain and fatigue now have a meaning. There’s some lightness pouring in,” he said.

The victim’s lawyer, Laura Sgrò, said: “This is the first verdict dealing with sexual violence, and convicting someone for it, inside the Vatican. From this point of view, this is historic.”

Martinelli has denied any wrongdoing. His lawyer did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Post investigation in 2021 detailed how Vatican officials had largely ignored accusations against Martinelli — despite repeated written warnings to senior clerics, up to and including the pope — and launched only speedy, superficial investigations.

The victim’s roommate was kicked out of the seminary after sounding the alarm. Martinelli was ordained as a priest in 2017.

Only after media scrutiny did the Vatican revisit the case and put Martinelli on trial.

The case was unprecedented. The Vatican for years had dealt with alleged abusers out of the public eye, in administrative decisions shrouded in secrecy or canonical trials with religious penalties, such as the defrocking of convicted clerics.

The 2021 ruling acquitting Martinelli concluded that the statute of limitations had expired for the charge of corruption of a minor. But on Tuesday the court ruled that the period between Aug. 9, 2008, and March 19, 2009, when Martinelli was of legal age and the victim was a minor, fell within the statute of limitations.

The verdict carried a rare Vatican prison sentence in a city-state with only three jail cells. Last month, a Vatican court issued other harsh sentences, including of a high-ranking cardinal, in a corruption probe.

Martinelli was also issued a fine and must cover the legal fees of the victim.

The decision did not address whether he can remain a priest.

A rector who also faced trial in 2021 for covering up the case — the Rev. Enrico Radice, 74 — was previously acquitted and was not subject to the appeal.