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Italy’s Jericho – Vatican City

In the old testament there is the story of the city of Jericho, the walls of which succumbed to the trumpets and cries of the Children of Israel.  Now it is a new, grown up, group of children who are sounding trumpets, and the walls of the city which may succumb to resounding claims of sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic Church belong to the Vatican.

To date, the Vatican has had to defend itself from sexual abuse claims arising in Canada, Ireland, and the United States, as well as more recently, Germany.  Furthermore, this week, revelations from a Norwegian clergyman that he abused a minor have continued to rock the Roman Catholic establishment, which, as most will know, has its seat in central Rome.

Although it is somewhat difficult to believe at times, the Vatican City is a country in its own right, but this does not stop all the cardinals and co from attempting to influence the politics and society in Italy.  And this is despite the fact that, officially anyway, there is no state religion in Italy.  Some Italians do consider that the Vatican exerts an undue level of influence on Italy, and such people would not be overly sorry to see such influence reduced considerably, or, indeed, completely eliminated.

St Peter's, Rome
St Peter's, Rome

Some of Italy’s politicians would be rather happy if the Vatican’s propensity for commenting on goings on in Italy could be reduced to zero, too.  On the 1st April, Italian newspaper and Berlusconi mouthpiece, Il Giornale ran a front page headline with the title: Paedophile Priests: Alarm in Milan (article in Italian).

In the article, a Milan judge, Pietro Forno, stated that in all the years he has spent investigating cases of sexual abuse, the Roman Catholic church has not once reported a case to the Italian authorities.  Under Italian law, the Roman Catholic church is not obliged to report such crimes, although if it had, it may have been taken as a sign of good faith on the part of the church.

The sexual abuse scandal is moving closer to home, and the trumpets are blowing ever louder. Even if he cries of victims in Italy appear to have been muffled by Vatican authorities, it seems to be only a matter of time before the sexual abuse scandal hits.

The Vatican’s Silence

The Vatican is clearly aware of what has been going on, and judging by the rather clandestine approach it appears to have taken to the matter, it must be aware that revelations similar to those in Germany, Canada and Ireland, will come out in the wash.  I have asked some Italians whether this will ever happen. I found their responses interesting.

The general consensus seems to be that although there have been cases in Italy; and the recent Il Giornale article supports this; they probably will not become public on account of the Vatican running a huge damage limitation exercise. The recent statement to the Italian press made by Italian judge, Pietro Forno, would suggest that this is the case.

“Insabbiamento” is a word being used quite often in the Italian press with regard to the sexual abuse scandals.  The word literally means “covered with sand”, and, as you may have guessed, indicates a cover-up.  A similar word in English is “sandbagging”.  How effective the cover up, or sandbagging, has been in Italy is unclear, although recent events suggest that something may well reach the pages of Italy’s press.  If this happens, and the floodgates open, the Vatican may implode.

Is The End of the Vatican Nigh?

There are some 410,000 Roman Catholic priests around the world, and it has been suggested that between 1.5% and 5% may have been involved in sexually abusing minors in their charge.  This would equate to somewhere between six and twenty thousand cases, perhaps many, many more, through the years.  The Vatican’s reluctance to come clean on the issue appears to indicate that the problem may be even more widespread than a few figures might suggest.  If the worst comes to the worst, and cases are revealed in Italy, the Vatican could survive, even if its image will be severely tarnished, and its power seriously reduced.  But the Vatican will only weather the storm if it turns from sandbagging to transparency.

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In a word, the Vatican needs to be more honest, and not attribute all the accusations to gossip – as indeed a senior Italian clergyman tried to do in an Easter address in which recent criticism from the USA levelled at the current Pope and his involvement in the sexual abuse crisis prior to becoming the leader of the Roman Catholic church was compared to disparaging comments made about the late Pope Pius XII, who, some believe, did not speak out enough against the holocaust.  The sexual abuse situation, with its cases in the United States, Canada, Germany, and Ireland amounted to more than mere chit-chat – although the Vatican appears to be reluctant to acknowledge this.

Others, though, may be concerned.

Italian Parents May be Asking Questions

It is likely that some Italian parents will start asking a few searching questions to know something about the background of the priest who runs their local church, conducts catechism classes and runs the after-school activities in many of Italy’s church run youth centres or ‘oratorio’ as they are known in Italian.

The Vatican response to the concerns of Italian and other parents is to vet those who wish to become priests more closely.  Additionally, to allay fears that having an all-male priesthood might be the cause of pent up sexual frustration which has led to abuse, Vatican authorities recently hinted that the age-old rule on the celibacy of Roman Catholic priests may be reviewed.  With a traditionalist like Pope Benedict XVI at the helm, this seems highly unlikely.

The Victims

Through events like the World Youth Day, the Roman Catholic church makes great play of the youth of today being essential to the future of our world.  But, it did not offer clear support to the victims of the sexual abuse.  A comment in a report by the Irish Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse was damning:

“the Dublin Archdiocese’s pre-occupations in dealing with cases of child sexual abuse, at least until the mid 1990s, were the maintenance of secrecy, the avoidance of scandal, the protection of the reputation of the Church, and the preservation of its assets. All other considerations, including the welfare of children and justice for victims, were subordinated to these priorities. The Archdiocese did not implement its own canon law rules and did its best to avoid any application of the law of the State”.

It is also looking as though the present Pope has been involved in attempts to hush-up cases of sexual abuse involving clergy.  Articles in the New York Times are intimating this, and are supporting such claims with correspondence on cover-ups which the paper claims was signed by the man who is now Pope.

What Now?

It does not look as though the Vatican is going to move away from its long standing strategy, which is to hush-up as much as possible.  Whether this strategy will prove effective in the long run remains to be seen, and as mentioned at the start of this post, there are people in Italy who would like to see the Roman Catholic church’s powerful wings well and truly clipped.

Let’s hope that the Vatican reviews its position and comes out firmly on the side of the victims, instead of selfishly looking after its own interests.

The vast majority of Roman Catholic priests, and, for that matter, the Roman Catholic church, does very good work and makes a very valuable contribution to society, not only in Italy, but all over the world.  As one small example, there is Father Luigi Ciotti, who is closely involved with Italy’s courageous anti-mafia association, Libera.

It would be very sad indeed for the importance of such work to be diminished.

The Vatican needs to heed the sound of the trumpets before it becomes too late.  And the trumpets are becoming louder and louder as each day passes.  If the Vatican is going to change tack, it had better do it soon, and act convincingly.

St Peter’s photograph by Andreas Tille

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