Italy is just beginning to come to terms with the abuse of hundreds of children by members of the Catholic clergy. And that may only be the tip of the iceberg.
A decade ago, reports of clerical sex abuse were virtually unknown, but the "tsunami" of cases—as Vatican prosecutor Charles Scicluna calls it—brought to light in the past seven years in the U.S. may have encouraged Italian victims to come forward. A recent Associated Press tally has documented 73 cases with allegations of sexual abuse against minors in the past decade, with more than 235 victims. The information was gathered from local media reports, linked to by victims groups websites and blogs, reports Nicole Winfeld for the Associated Press. Perhaps even more tellingly, almost all of the victims came forward since the allegations of sexual abuse forced the U.S. Catholic Church to deal with the staggering number of sexual crimes committed by its priests and clergy.
The cases also in Italy follow a similar pattern to those reported in the U.S. and in Ireland. The victims are often poor, physically or mentally disabled, or struggling with drug addiction. These vulnerable kids are appealing targets to priests, who needed to intimidate their victims into silence. Several of the cases reported in Italy came out of a Catholic-run institute for the deaf (which were omitted from the AP survey because by the time the victims went public, the statute of limitations had already expired). Along with 14 other former students, Alessandro Vantini has come with the story of his abuse. He says he was sodomized repeatedly by the priests, until he began to feel "as if I were dead." The abuse took place in the priests' bedrooms, in the bathroom, and sometimes in the confessional. As Winfeld says, the deaf students were targeted particularly because their speech impairments "made the priests' admonition 'never to tell' all the more easy to enforce."
Although 67 former students from Verona's Antonio Provolo institute for the deaf signed a statement accusing 24 priests, lay religious men, and religious brothers of participating in a pattern of abuse that took place from the 1950s to the 1980s, the investigation conducted by the Verona diocese has chosen not to interview any of the alleged victims. Gianni Bisoli, 60, named Verona's late bishop, Giuseppe Carraro (image above), of molesting him on five separate occasions. A diocesan probe cleared Carraro of all charges—again, without interviewing Bisoli—and Carraro is currently being considered for sainthood.
While the fact that Verona bishop Giuseppe Zenti even ordered the investigation is encouraging (although they were originally dismissed as a publicity stunt), the way in which the probe was conducted is incredibly questionable. Advocates have criticized the diocese's investigation because they only interviewed people with links to the school, the very people most likely to try and cover up a scandal of this magnitude. "If they had wanted to shed full light on it, they wouldn't have only heard from priests and lay brothers, but from the deaf as well," said Marco Lodi Rizzini, a spokesman for the victims.
Scicluna says he sees the increased public awareness of clerical abuse in Italy as a bright spot in a whole mess of darkness. "There is a change of mentality, and we find that to be very positive," he told the Associated Press. He continued: "[sexual abuse] has always happened. It's important that people talk about it, because otherwise we cannot bring the healing which the church can offer to people who need it - both the victims and perpetrators."