ROME – As the Vatican prepares to host an international summit of bishops in February on clerical sex abuse, the Italian bishops are preparing by fine-tuning new guidelines for the protection of minors.
“It’s an initial suggestion to imagine a future course of action,” said Father Stefano Russo, Secretary General of the Italian Bishops’ Conference (CEI) during a press event Jan. 16.
“We want to promote attention toward the protection of the most vulnerable,” he added.
Russo spoke at the conclusion of the January meeting of the permanent council of CEI, Jan. 14-16, which took place under the direction of its president, Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti of Perugia.
During the meeting, “ample space,” an official communique reads, was dedicated to addressing and discussing guidelines for the protection of minors requested by Pope Francis.
While the guidelines won’t be made public until May, the bishops approved the creation of a national framework to advise clergy and bishops on best practices regarding sexual abuse and nominated Bishop Lorenzo Ghizzoni, president of CEI’s commission for the protection of minors, as its head.
“It’s a synodal process,” Russo said, “a journey that is certainly long, but done carefully, so that this structure may be operative in an effective way.”
Victims of sexual abuse were expected to meet with the commission during its gathering, “but we preferred moving it because there wasn’t enough time,” Russo said.
Instead, victims will be meeting with Bassetti in February, ahead of the Feb. 21-24 gathering of heads of bishops’ conferences from around the world. Victims will have to wait until March to meet with members of CEI, Russo said.
The secretary general explained that while victims were not part of the process for the creation of the guidelines or the national framework, advisers who are part of the commission “were not people who speak in an abstract way.”
“These are experts who know the victims and take into account their perspective,” Russo said, adding that since many of the victims of clerical sexual abuse are minors, they should be protected and not brought into the logistics of determining policy.
Spokespersons for survivors, however, expressed eagerness to be involved.
“I know over 700 adult sexual abuse victims!” said Francesco Zanardi, clerical abuse survivor and president of Rete L’Abuso, the only association of victims of clerical abuse in Italy, in an interview with Crux. Jan. 16.
“We will come right away!” he added.
On Dec. 20, the victims’ and family’s section of Rete L’Abuso sent a letter to Bassetti, which can be viewed on their site, offering their availability for a meeting after Francis asked all the heads of bishops’ conferences to meet with victims ahead of the February gathering.
“We received no response,” Zanardi said.
Unlike in the United States or Australia, where efforts have been made to understand how widespread clerical sexual abuse is, in Italy the number of victims and the dimension of the phenomenon remains unknown.
“I’m not able to give any numbers,” Russo told journalists, adding that this is because “eventual canonical charges are sent to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.” The Holy See, he added, sent a questionnaire to CEI asking for further details on how widespread clerical sex abuse is in Italy.
Since the clerical abuse crisis broke in 2001, the Italian Church and institutions have failed to bring forward any documentation on the number of abuse cases, canonical or civil trials and survivors.
“You would think that pedophile priests don’t exist in Italy!” Zanardi said.
On its website, Rete L’abuso counts over 800 alleged clerical abuse victims and 17 clinics for pedophile priests in the country. “It’s absurd that we keep track of it and the state does not,” the survivor added, “especially given what is happening in the rest of the world.”
Zanardi said that in Chile and Argentina, where clerical abuse scandals have rocked the local church, public opinion responded strongly and stimulated governments into action.
“We have a dramatic situation here in Italy,” he said, and “there isn’t a civil conscience on the issue.”
“Eighteen years after the scandals broke the problem is still unresolved,” Zanardi continues. “How many have we sacrificed in these eighteen years?”
Italian Catholic and lay publications often report the abuse scandals taking place elsewhere, but according to on the ground experts there are also many cases taking place in the pope’s backyard that don’t make the headlines.
“The victims of abuse by clergy are many in Italy,” said Father Fortunato Di Noto, a sort of Italian Steve Wozniak in the global fight against the sexual exploitation of minors, ever since he picked up his computer to denounce abusers in 1989.
“They await a clear operational response that goes beyond the mechanism of protecting ourselves without protecting others,” he told Crux in a Jan. 16 interview.
Di Noto 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, leading to over 300 arrests and signaling concerns regarding more than 23,000 religious and lay people accused of abusing minors.
While the priest declared to be “always confident in the commitment of the Church in Italy, which has taken some serious steps” in combating sexual abuse, “the problem lies in the lack of coordination,” he said.
Di Noto said that Francis said it all when he pointed to clericalism and elitism as the maladies that are at the root of the sexual abuse crisis in the Church, emphasizing that all members of clergy are first and foremost baptized faithful who renounce Satan.
“I am convinced that it’s not so true when we say that we are on the part of victims,” the priest said with a global perspective, citing the European Union report saying that over 18 million minors are victims of abuse on the Old Continent.
“We are still debating in 2019 about whether Christians should protect children!” he added.
According to the priest, it shouldn’t be priests or bishops heading these commissions on sexual abuse in the Church. “There should be women, lay people, religious sisters and victims,” he said, “and men of good will willing to apply the rules.”
Di Noto said that this view reflects the sentiment of Francis’s “Letter to the People of God” in August 2018. “We don’t have to create professionals in the fight against pedophilia,” he said, “we need to create a real and concrete conscience.”
The real danger for the Church is in its “fragmentation and excessive bureaucratization,” he added, where the solutions are unclear, actions are postponed and victims slide down the priority list.
“Being on the part of victims is a passion and a choice,” Di Noto said, before concluding that “a lot has been done, but there is still a lot more to be done.”