ROME – An Italian priest on the front lines of the fight against sexual abuse, and a member of a commission that shortly will be producing the Italian bishops’ new guidelines for safeguarding children, said he’s optimistic about the handling of abuse cases on the peninsula.
The guidelines “will address formation, information and prevention, as well as everything necessary to ensure that the Church becomes a safe haven of care capable of handling these issues,” said Father Fortunato Di Noto, an internationally renowned figure respected for his work in the fight against pedophilia, in a phone interview with Crux.
The Italian bishops’ conference gathered Nov. 12-14 for an extraordinary assembly that is tackling, among other things, sexual abuse. Pope Francis requested that the bishops provide new guidelines, to be added to those already published in 2014, and to focus primarily on prevention.
After a year and a half of work, the commission will present the new guidelines to the assembly and the bishops will take them back to their dioceses for reflection until they are called to express their vote.
The date in which the guidelines will be voted upon and released has not been set.
Given that a commission on abuse recently created by the French bishops promises results no sooner than two years from now, and that the United States was stalled in their handling of sexual abuse by the Vatican, it would seem that what once appeared to be momentum in the Church’s global handling of sexual abuse has stalled. The uncertainty of the Italian outcome seems in line with this new reality.
Presidents from bishops’ conferences from all over the world will meet in Rome Feb. 21-24 to discuss clerical sexual abuse, and possibly move the ball on the matter under the Vatican’s supervision.
Referring to the Italian reality, Di Noto said that “it’s fair for the bishops to have time to discern” about the guidelines, especially given the unparalleled number of dioceses in the country, with a multitude of “pastors who have the sensitivity to address clerical sexual abuse.”
Italy, the priest added, “is not at ground zero” when it comes to this issue, and the 2014 guidelines already paved the way for further progress.
“Our attention is directed first and foremost to the victims, a line which united us all,” Di Noto said about the aim of the commission, “we cannot, today more than yesterday, stay silent and bypass the question.”
“I think the commission has worked well,” he added, “a great effort on prevention was made.”
Di Noto’s opinion on the handling of sexual abuse, especially in the Italian context, comes from over 30 years of experience in fighting human trafficking and sexual abuse, within and outside of the Church.
He started surfing the internet in 1989, and while studying at the Gregorian University in Rome, first came across the reality of pedo-pornographic content during a conference raising awareness. From that moment, he began using his keen understanding of the internet to track down victims and perpetrators.
While many police departments in Italy and the world did not even have a computer, Di Noto was getting information about pedophilia on the web and sending it via fax to authorities all over the world. A tip he sent a commissioner in Brazil in 1999 led to the arrest of a major pedophile network and the liberation of 158 children.
He started his non-profit organization, Meter, in his parish in 1995, with a few concerned faithful. In the past 12 years they have proved essential in over 23 national and international police investigations, led to over 300 arrests and signaled concerns regarding more than 23,000 religious and lay people accused of abusing minors.
On Nov. 10 of this year, Di Noto and his group discovered a pedophile sex ring concerning over 3,000 children in Russia.
“Had it been a priest, the whole world would have talked about it,” he said.
The phenomenon of pedophilia, strengthened by the power of the internet, “is under everyone’s eyes,” Di Noto said, “but no one moves a finger.” The priest works closely with the Italian police and government, as well as other departments from eastern Europe to change the situation.
His footprint will forever exist in the Italian legal system, specifically in law 269/1998, which was named after him and clearly defines online pedo-pornographic content as “a new form of slavery.”
What’s missing in the global fight against pedophilia Di Noto believes, is international cooperation. To this day, he said, 35 countries do not have a law prohibiting the sexual abuse of minors, and 75 countries struggle to legally frame the issue.
“If the problem is global, then we must face it globally,” said Di Noto.
Like a “Big Brother” patrolling the dark corners of the Internet, Di Noto’s association releases a report every year detailing the growth of pedo-pornographic content on the web. Just as the internet allows perpetrators to continue their operation, it allows the priest to make long distances irrelevant and to bring cases to the attention of law enforcement worldwide.
But there is another issue, according to the veteran in combating sexual abuse, that cripples the Church’s ability to react.
“The phenomenon in the Church needs to be addressed in all its complexity,” he said, adding that it’s a lack of understanding of the causes, dynamics and questions surrounding pedophilia that make any action inadequate.
“There is an effort to impose zero tolerance,” Di Noto said, “with some mistakes,” adding that “sometimes in the past there hasn’t been the maturity necessary to face the issue.”
A bishop should be a bishop, he explained, catering to the needs of his flock. Using the parable of the Good Samaritan as reference, Di Noto said that when a bishop sees someone on the side of the road, naked, beaten, he should take them to the host of the inn.
The host of the inn represents experts, such as those at Meter, who know how to help and take care of the victims, he explained.
“It’s not like the bishop has an infused science to solve the problem,” Di Noto said, “he must be helped by outsiders. There are bishops who are prepared and vigilant, and others who are not able to handle these issues.”