Italien is a latecomer in dealing with sexualized violence in the Catholic Church. While in Australia, Canada and the USA, in Argentina and Chile, in Germany and Austria, in France, Spain and Portugal abuse in the church has been reported and disputed for years and decades, in Italy there was a roaring silence until the end. As if there had been no abusive and violent priests in the “motherland” of the universal church, no abuse in Catholic educational and social institutions – and no bishops who had covered up crimes and abuses.
The stubborn silence had become unbearable for the victims and led to a continuing erosion of the credibility of the Italian Bishops’ Conference (CEI) and the Catholic Church as a whole. The matter also weighed heavily on Pope Francis, who, as Bishop of Rome, is also the Primate of Italy’s Catholics.
While the Curia, led and also pushed by the Pope, took all sorts of precautions and created institutions in the Vatican to prevent future abuse in the universal church and to deal with abuse that had already taken place, the same Pope allowed the CEI to delay and repress.
The first abuse report in Italy
That should be over now. Last week, the CEI presented its first ever abuse report. Archbishop Giuseppe Baturi, CEI Secretary General, and Archbishop Lorenzo Ghizzoni, Chair of the CEI Office for the Protection of Minors and Vulnerables, emphasized that the report was “only a first step” that others would follow. It also needs that. Because the report presented now only looks at the years 2020 and 2021, and even for this two-year period the data is incomplete.
They were collected on the basis of the reports from the so-called hearing centers, which have been set up since 2019 to process cases of abuse. There are now 90 of these institutions nationwide, both regional and national. In addition, the CEI, together with external experts, sent questionnaires on cases of sexualized violence to all 226 dioceses. Of these, 166 dioceses – a 73 percent share – submitted responses to the CEI.
In the two-year period mentioned, there were 86 contacts with the centers, it said. It was about 89 victims and 68 alleged perpetrators. There were both current cases and those from the past before the 2020/21 reporting period. Most of those affected, around 37 percent, were between 15 and 18 years old at the time of the crime. A good 31 percent were between ten and 14 years old, 13.5 percent between five and nine years.
The incidents were primarily “inappropriate behavior and language” (30.4 percent), “touching” (26.6 percent) and “sexual harassment” (16.5 percent). Sexual intercourse, the display of pornographic material, cyber grooming and acts of exhibitionism were also reported. The alleged perpetrators were 44 percent clergy, lay people made up 34 percent, religious 22 percent. Almost 60 percent of the alleged perpetrators were between 40 and 60 years old at the time of the crime.
In a second step, the CEI wants to evaluate the 613 reports of alleged cases of abuse that have been sent by Italian dioceses to the faith authorities in the Vatican since 2000. The number 613 is about files that were created by the Vatican authorities, how many individual cases are involved is currently uncertain, admitted CEI Secretary General Baturi. He promised that external experts could also be consulted for the evaluation.
Unwillingness for external investigation
Francesco Zanardi, himself a victim of abuse and founding chairman of the organization “Rete l’Abuso”, described the report as “a joke”. Its aim was apparently to cover up and not reveal the extent of abuse in the Italian Church, says Zanardi. Because of the limited period of time, the report is not very meaningful, only mentions confusing numbers, but not the communities and dioceses affected. It is also based exclusively on figures from church sources, data from independent institutions and law enforcement agencies have not been used.
“Rete l’Abuso” assumes that there have been around 2,000 victims of abuse since 2000 alone. “Rete l’Abuso” criticized that neither the reports to the faith authorities in the Vatican nor the data from the hearing centers for 2020/21 covered the previous decades. Through its own research, the organization has identified 178 accused priests, 165 priests convicted by Italian courts, and 218 pending cases.
But even with its time-limited and incomplete report – with 68 named abusers in just two years – the CEI revealed that there is “a problem in the church of Italy, and a big one at it,” says Zanardi. “Rete l’Abuso” has always demanded that there be no way around an institution independent of the church examining the abuse cases of the past decades. So far, the CEI has not indicated a willingness to conduct an independent external investigation into the abuse problem in the Church of Italy.