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  • March 2022 : Time for the Church to address clerical abuse in Italy

While large-scale, in-depth inquiries into clerical sexual abuse have been conducted in countries such as France, Germany, Ireland, the United States, Portugal, and Spain, in Pope Francis’ backyard, nothing is happening on the issue. In fact, in November 2021, at the plenary assembly of the Italian Bishops’ Conference (CEI), Bishop Lorenzo Ghizzoni of Ravenna-Cervia (who also heads the National Service for the Protection of Minors and Vulnerable Adults in the Church) said that bishops in Italy were considering the launch of an official enquiry into clerical sexual abuse in the country.
It is important to remember that in 2019 Pope Francis had issued the Vos Estis Lux Mundi law which requires mandatory reporting to the bishops. Victims have affirmed that “Bishops do not obey this law but they are not punished”. “Weak laws have favored the transfer of pedophiles to Italy,” they have added. Besides, even if the perfect Church commission were established, it “is no longer credible,” they said : “we need an independent commission that ensures impartiality”.
The 2021 CEI’s proposal was met with some resistance from other prelates who questioned whether the Church in Italy was ready for the fallout that a major independent investigation would inevitably cause. For this reason, further discussion of the issue was postponed until CEI’s spring plenary assembly in May, after the election of the new CEI President, who will replace Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti.
The problem of clerical abuse was again briefly raised at the meeting of the CEI Permanent Episcopal Council which took place from 24-26 January 2022. At a press conference following the meeting, Bishop Stefano Russo, CEI’s Secretary general, said that if an inquiry is conducted, “we will do it in a careful way to ensure that it is meaningful in terms of results”. The current proposal being discussed by the CEI would draw on data from a new diocesan-level program for listening to victims, which is run by the CEI and religious superiors : “We are not so much interested in focusing on quantity, but on quality. If there is an investigation, we want the data to be as reliable as possible,” Bishop Russo also said, insisting that the Catholic Church in Italy is doing “very serious work” to build a support network for survivors and prevent further abuse.
Victims reacted with doubt. Speaking to Crux, Francesco Zanardi, a survivor of clerical abuse and president of the Rete L’ABUSO organization for victim support, questioned whether the Italian Church leaders are ready to open an enquiry : “We do not think so and we do not want a Church enquiry”, he said. The Church, he added, is presenting this and similar initiatives tepidly, under a lampshade, and while this is still a positive sign, “unfortunately, it does not present these initiatives when it should”.
In sum, everything will depend on who will be the next President of the Italian bishops : we will understand whether even in Italy it is possible to start from the top a work of analysis of the work of the bishops with regard to the cases of sexual abuse of minors committed by priests or not.
We do not know whether clerical abuse has anything to do with religion. It is certain, however, that such abuses have to do with the Church. From a legal point of view, these abuses are not spiritual problems, they are crimes that the State must deal with according to the criminal laws.
A recent decision of the Italian Supreme Court provides an opportunity to focus the attention on the issue when related to the ne bis in idem principle and, as such, on the relationship between the Church (canonical) jurisdiction and Italy’s criminal jurisdiction. According to the Supreme Court, there is nothing to prevent a cleric who has been tried by the canonical court for facts which, under Italian law, are classified as sexual abuse of minors (Article 609-quarter of the Italian penal code) from being judged for those same facts also by the state jurisdiction (see also Cassazione penale sez. III, 13/03/2018, n. 21997).
Thus, in cases like these the Church can act by not only opening archives, asking negligent bishops to resign, and providing compensation. The Church can also act by intensifying prevention efforts, collaborating with the Italian authorities and standing by all victims. This is the only way for the Church to counter and prevent such crimes. Regaining its credibility requires it.

D 17 mars 2022    AFrancesco Alicino

CNRS Unistra Dres Gsrl

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