— Two decades after the U.S. Catholic Church finally began to confront priest abuse of minors, and many other countries followed suit, Italian bishops who live with the Vatican in their midst are reluctant to break the church’s vow of silence and answer to victims.
By Francesco Peloso
It was in 2002 that the scandal of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests erupted in the United States, prompting the country’s conference of bishops to draft the first Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People in the Church.
The charter allowed guilty clergy members to be removed, and dioceses — the group of churches that a bishop supervises — were asked to cooperate with civil authorities in cases of violence against minors in the name of transparency.
But 20 years later, the scandal, which has since spread to many other countries, is far from over.
In the meantime, things have changed in the Vatican as well. Abandoning its longstanding policy of denial and systematic cover-up, the Vatican introduced policies to protect victims, collaborate with judicial authorities in different countries and reflect on the root causes of the scandal, namely the abuse of power and conscience, and the Church’s tendency to defend the institution at all costs.
Still, the Vatican’s new approach only goes so far, because every law and regulation handed down from Rome must be dropped into the reality of thousands of dioceses scattered across the world, where secrecy often prevails over the search for truth.
In this sense, the Italian Catholic Church seems to be unsurpassed in maintaining a rigid vow of silence. This reality is of course more notable because the Vatican is located inside of Italy, and much of its staff and leadership is Italian.
In recent years, the church has distinguished itself by the tendency to leave things as they are, hoping problems would eventually fade away. But this was ultimately not possible with the abuse scandal – especially when it became clear it would keep widening and engulfing the church in many countries.
The silence of the bishops
Outside of Italy, we’ve generally seen two types of reactions: first, in many cases national church authorities themselves have decided to ask third parties to open fact-finding investigations. Or secondly, the seriousness of the facts has often provoked upheaval within the church and demands for major change.
This was the case in France and Germany, and to some extent in Australia, Austria, Belgium and elsewhere.
Even the Italian Bishops’ Conference (CEI) had to reluctantly take on the problem, finally releasing its first report on sexual abuse of minors by priests in November.
But those who hoped for a turn toward truth and justice have been left disappointed: the report only takes into account cases of abuse reported to ad hoc listening centers over the two-year period 2020-2021, excluding those received by the judiciary or by third parties. During this laughably brief time frame, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, 89 cases of abuse were reported by 30 centers.
A sick system
The bishops’s conference itself, perhaps realizing the report’s limitations, announced a second survey on the cases of sexual abuse reported to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the last 20 years.
The problem of abuse in the church cannot be traced back simply to the presence of a few ‘bad apples.’
The bishops say they expect about 600 such cases, but recent investigations around the world suggest the real numbers are far higher.
“The high number of cases that have emerged and the extent of the phenomenon clearly show that the problem of abuse in the church cannot be traced back simply to the presence of a few ‘bad apples,’ but is rather the sign of a sick system that needs to be healed,” Vatican official Isabelle Cassarà wrote in a 2020 report.
She described the problem as more “structural” than any individual transgression. “There is a specific dynamic of abuse,” Cassarà wrote. It is “a system with precise rules, in which sexual abuse is fostered and covered by a long succession of other abuses of power and conscience.”
The problem, in short, is not just statistical. Rather, the church’s reticence conceals a broader problem.
Church investigating itself
Italian Church officials have also said they won’t bring in external investigators to look into the abuse scandal.
“We are not going to create a national commission made up of individuals who know nothing about the life of the church, who are qualified as objective only because they are not bishops, nor priests, nor believers, as it has been done elsewhere and caused damage,” Archbishop Lorenzo Ghizzoni, president of the council of bishops National Service for the Protection of Minors and Vulnerable Persons, said while presenting the November 2022 report on abuse.
Ghizzoni added: “We are going to look at real data and try to find ways for prevention. What we are interested in is not pillorying priests – it is preventing abuse, and this will require decisive action. We as bishops have committed ourselves to cooperate with law enforcement.”
In essence, the Italian bishops’ stance is that the only ones authorized or with the necessary expertise to carry out investigations on the church are the clerics themselves. In this perspective, prevention, which in itself is right and necessary, serves mainly as an excuse for not shedding light on the past.
Blaming drinks and stress
But there is another passage worth noting, when Ghizzoni explains the meaning of the second ongoing investigation into abusive priests in the Vatican: “Whoever commits 10 to 50 cases in his life is a serial abuser and is a very dangerous character, but whoever has committed only one abuse in his life, one day that he drank, he was under stress or let himself be provoked, can we consider him a serial psychopath? We will have to think of solutions for these as well.”
I wonder what the victim thinks of the priest who had been drinking that day. The statements made by the head for the protection of minors seem a transparent, even if evidently unconscious, summary of the Italian church’s motivations to defend itself before seeking justice and truth.
Ultimately, the issue of sexual abuse has become one of the key issues on which the church’s ability to matter in today’s world will be measured.
Sexuality, affective relationships, compulsory celibacy, the role of laity and women, clericalism and institutional secrecy as a method of governance: these are just some of the themes that have arisen from the debate on sexual abuses — and that the church will inevitably have to face.
According to Christine Pedotti, a Catholic feminist and editor of the French magazine Temoignage Chrétien, the causes of the scandal can be found precisely in the church’s relationship with sexuality and democracy.
‘Impure’ thinking, masturbation, rape, are all confused under the generic term sin.
“There is no direct link between the sexual abstinence required for Catholic clerics and the abuses, but there is a very powerful indirect link,” she says.
“First, when any form of sexual activity, including simple masturbation, is considered wrong, disordered, and sinful, there is no longer a hierarchy of transgression: ‘impure’ thinking, masturbation, rape, are all confused under the generic term sin, to the point that the difference between sin and crime becomes blurred,” Pedotti says. “This confusion is expressed in the very words of those in charge, who never stop talking about sin, penance and forgiveness, when they should be talking about crime, guilt, victim, investigation, judgment and verdict.”
The problem, Pedotti says, is that the church judges sexuality in relation to the sixth commandment – not to commit adultery – rather than in terms of consent.
“In a non-consensual relationship, it is a person that is being violated, not a commandment. That is why victims are regularly ignored,” she says.
Democracy and the principles of rule of law and separation of powers should also guard against abuse, Pedotti says.
“The independence of the judiciary is guaranteed; the rights of the defense and the accused are protected. Except for special cases, proceedings and, most importantly, judgments are public,” Pedotti says.
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