By Philip Pullella and Angelo Amante
ROME (Reuters) – In an ongoing trial in Sicily, a 28-year-old Italian is seeking justice against a man he accuses of forcing him to perform sex acts before becoming a priest.
Victim claims alleged abuse, committed more than a decade ago when he was a minor and accused was a seminarian leading youth groups, included forced masturbation and oral sex in sacristies and halls of class. The accused denies the charges.
The victim turned himself in to police only after the Church failed to follow up on his accusations, which he spelled out to two priests and in a meeting with a bishop involving his parents.
Victims groups say there are thousands of similar cases hidden in Church records, and they are increasing pressure for an independent investigation in Italy to mirror recent moves in France and Germany.
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Nine Italian groups have formed a consortium and will announce a campaign called “Beyond the Great Silence” on Tuesday and unveil a hashtag #ItalyChurchToo.
It aims to publicly pressure the Italian government to investigate past and present abuses in the Church or for the Church to commission an impartial investigation by outsiders.
The campaign is the latest global move to force the Catholic Church to establish the full extent of clergy sexual abuse that has cost it millions of dollars in victim compensation.
“The state and the government must take the lead on this,” Francesco Zanardi, the leader of one of the groups, Rete l’Abuso (The Abuse Network), which tracks clerical abuse in Italy, told Reuters. .
“If the Church investigates itself, its first objective will be to protect itself,” said Zanardi, a victim of clergy sexual abuse.
Activists did not specify how many sexual abuse crimes they suspected had taken place in Italy, but Rete l’Abuso documented hundreds of such cases, mostly current or recent.
The German study, published in 2018, showed that 1,670 clergymen abused 3,677 minors from 1946 to 2014. The French survey published last year and covering seven decades found that more than 200,000 children had been abused in Catholic institutions.
Pope Francis expressed his shame at the Church’s failure to deal with sexual abuse cases and said the Church must make itself a “safe home for all”. Former Pope Benedict has acknowledged that mistakes occurred in handling sexual abuse cases when he was Archbishop of Munich and asked for forgiveness.
The results of an independent survey dating back decades could be devastating in Italy, where around 74% of the population is Catholic.
“The Church doesn’t want this because it would be a powder keg,” Zanardi said.
The bishops of Italy are divided on the type of investigation to be carried out.
Some say the church has the resources, like diocesan anti-abuse committees, to do the job itself.
Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, a supporter of an internal investigation, explained his position in an interview with the newspaper. Paola Lazzarini, head of Women in the Church, which is part of the consortium, told Reuters Bassetti’s position “does not satisfy us at all”.
Other bishops, including Erio Castellucci of Modena and Paolo Lojudice of Siena, signaled their support for the commissioning of an outside investigation.
Victims groups and some experts on abuse within the Church have warned that an internal investigation would not be convincing.
“We may have the best intentions, but as long as we do it internally, no one will believe us,” Father Hans Zollner, who heads the department of protection and prevention of sexual abuse at the Gregorian University, told Reuters. Rome.
A decision must be taken in May during a plenary to elect the new president of the Italian Episcopal Conference because any investigation will be carried out during his five-year term.
(Reporting by Philip Pullella, editing by Timothey Heritage)
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