Italy’s Catholic Church at crossroads after sex abuse probe

  • Bishops meet to choose their conference president
  • Bishops divided between internal and external investigation
  • Victims and experts say internal investigation lacks credibility

SAVONA, Italy, May 19 (Reuters) – Francesco Zanardi has spent the past 12 years documenting the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests in Italy, filling a void he says is caused by the Church’s refusal of country so far to launch a major survey. .

When Italian bishops meet next week to elect a new president, Zanardi hopes to see the start of a long-awaited account for the Church, whose leaders will discuss whether to commission an independent inquiry into similar abuses. to those carried out in France and Germany. Read more

From his apartment in central Savona, northern Italy, Zanardi, 51, runs Rete l’Abuso (The Abuse Network), which has one of the largest digital archives of clerical sexual abuse in the country.

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He spends much of his time researching court documents, tracking the whereabouts of alleged abusers, talking to lawyers who help him with cases, and verifying victims’ advice.

“The common thread I found among victims is that they don’t want this to happen to others because only a victim knows what it does to you on the inside, even though on the outside they are smiling and having normal,” Zanardi said.

In February, Zanardi and eight other groups formed a consortium called “Beyond the Great Silence” and launched the hashtag #ItalyChurchToo to pressure the Italian Church into accepting an impartial investigation.

The choice of its next president for a five-year term is crucial as the bishops are divided on whether a possible large-scale investigation should be internal, using existing resources such as diocesan anti-abuse committees, or by an outside group, potentially including academics. , lawyers and abuse experts.

They are also divided on whether it should be limited to the recent past or go back decades.

A spokesman for the Italian bishops’ conference said they would discuss how to proceed at their meeting.

The global sex abuse crisis has severely damaged the credibility of the Roman Catholic Church and cost hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements, with some dioceses declaring themselves bankrupt.

The Church of Italy as a group has not issued a formal apology for the abuses, although some bishops have.


Victims’ groups say that for decades the Italian Church faced abuse like most other national churches – moving predatory priests from parish to parish, relying on psychological therapy with questionable effects, discrediting the victim and using his power with the civil authorities to hush things up.

In one case, some 20 years ago, a bishop sent a letter and file to the Vatican about Nello Giraudo, then a priest accused of molesting teenagers in a camp and home for troubled minors. He and his attorney have denied all charges against him.

In the letter, seen by Reuters along with other correspondence and court documents, the bishop said he would try “as much as possible” to ensure the priest had no further contact with children and teenagers.

But about two months later, the bishop appointed Giraudo to lead a parish in another area. He is responsible for saying mass, visiting the sick, visiting families and teaching religion to adults. But the assignment letter made no mention of staying away from children.

An internal diocesan memo written around the same time said there were suspicions about Giraudo dating back more than two decades.

The priest underwent psychological therapy. Another letter revealed that he had confided his “pedophile tendencies” to a colleague. Despite all the warnings, he was not defrocked.

He left the priesthood in 2010 and in 2012 a court gave him a one-year suspended sentence as part of a plea bargain for assaulting a 17-year-old boy at a camp in 2005.

Giraudo declined to speak to a Reuters reporter who approached him outside his home in Savona to discuss the charges against him.

Zanardi said he was abused by Giraudo when he was 12 and then fell into years of depression and drug addiction.


Victims like Zanardi say there are hundreds of instances where Church authorities failed to intervene, covered up, or acted too late to prevent abuses from happening again.

They say a full investigation would be a cleansing act for the Church in Italy, which has historically had a great influence on life and was considered untouchable.

Father Hans Zollner, a German who heads the Department of Safeguarding and Prevention of Sexual Abuse at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, has for years urged the Italian Church to accept an independent report.

“We may have the best intentions, but as long as we do it internally, no one will believe us,” Zollner said.

Proponents of an internal investigation say the Church has the resources, noting that around 62% of Italy’s 226 dioceses have set up ‘listening centres’ where victims and others can register complaints of abuse , past or present.

The bishops, meeting for five days behind closed doors in a hotel outside Rome, will vote for three candidates for the presidency of the conference and propose them to Pope Francis to choose one from among them.

Francis expressed his shame at the global Catholic Church‘s failure to deal with sexual abuse cases and said it must make itself a “safe home for all”.

Last month, he called for an annual audit assessing how national Catholic churches were implementing measures to protect children from clergy sexual abuse.

In 2019, Francis issued a papal directive directing every diocese around the world to establish “public, stable, and easily accessible systems for the submission” of sexual abuse reports.

Some countries, such as the United States, established procedures even before the directive, but others were slow to comply.

Zanardi says he doesn’t care who will be elected president of the episcopal conference “as long as he does a minimum of what has been done abroad.”

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Philip Pullella reported from Rome; Written by Philip Pullella; Editing by Alison Williams

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