ROME – More people have come forward to accuse Archbishop Luigi Ventura, the papal representative to France, of inappropriate behavior and groping. The Vatican diplomat currently is entrenched in a scandal after three men accused him of the same behavior earlier this year.

“We spoke with the Nuncio and he kept putting his hands on our legs while speaking with us, especially to the youngest priest who was with me,” said one alleged victim in a phone interview with Crux June 13.

The meeting took place in 2018 at the Vatican’s embassy in Paris. The man was accompanied by two people, who at first thought that Ventura’s behavior “could have been normal” and even “paternal.”

However, when the time came to take a picture, the nuncio’s intentions became clear.

“I took my mobile phone, to see what the perfect angle was to take the picture. He came behind me as if to look at how the picture was. That’s when he put his hands on my buttocks for about five seconds,” said the man, who wishes to remain anonymous.

“I was so shocked I couldn’t react,” he added.

An Italian, Ventura was appointed as a papal representative to France in September 2009 by emeritus Pope Benedict XVI.

The incident at the nunciature is similar to that described by Paris City Hall employee Mathieu de La Souchère, 27, who was the first to come forward accusing Ventura of inappropriate touching during a January 2019 New Year’s Eve event.

“When Monsignor Ventura’s car arrived, I came to pick him up and he started saying that I looked very beautiful, that he thought I was a very handsome man and he kept groping me,” De La Souchère told Crux in a June 12 phone interview.

“He did so with insistence, it wasn’t something nice. He was very determinate,” he said, adding that the event to him qualified as sexual abuse.

De La Souchère claims to have been groped on the buttocks three times by Ventura. The first time when he greeted the nuncio at his car, the second while going up the elevator and the third time as he accompanied the bishop toward the mayor’s office, where – being the veteran diplomat – he was supposed to initiate the celebrations.

The last time, there were four eyewitnesses who work at Paris City Hall who claim to have seen the groping take place.

“He was groping. There was no doubt about that,” one of the eyewitnesses told Crux, “we could not believe it.”

The young man immediately reported the events to his boss, the director of international relations who in turn spoke to the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo. Ventura was subsequently banned from any event at Paris City Hall and French authorities asked the Vatican to remove the nuncio’s diplomatic immunity.

Others have since come forward denouncing the nuncio’s behavior. According to French newspaper Le Monde, community manager Benjamin G. claims to have been groped in January 2018 during a meeting of the mayor with diplomatic and religious authorities. Another, “Mr. B “claims that he was greeted by the nuncio’s “right hand to say hello, left hand on the buttock.” A seminarian and another diplomat also denounced inappropriate touching.

On May 22-23, while still enjoying diplomatic immunity, Ventura willingly met with City Hall officials and some of the alleged victims to discuss the events. The archbishop stated his innocence, claiming that he has memory and vision problems that make it impossible for him to have committed the actions, and that the accusations are part of a City Hall plot against him.

Another similarity between the story of De La Souchère and the other source who spoke to Crux is the underlying abuse of power that Ventura seemingly exercised during his alleged sexual advances.

“Before groping me the monsignor asked questions. He wanted to know what my role was, what was my job at City Hall, what is my work. As soon as he found out that I wasn’t someone important in the hierarchy and especially that I could lose my job if I went public, that’s when everything started,” De La Souchère told Crux.

He also claimed that other victims who have gone public with the accusations against Ventura have seen their work and career suffer as a consequence.

He described the nuncio as very powerful in French diplomatic and religious circles, being the only one who was allowed to enter the mayor’s office and enjoying a privileged position compared to other diplomats.

The anonymous source who spoke to Crux recounted the same aura of power surrounding the nuncio and described him as “untouchable.”

“The guy is so powerful he meets the president and  the ministers, the pope and lots of very important people,” he said, adding that this was part of the reason Ventura made little to no effort to be discreet.

“He knew I worked for the Church, he knew my friend worked for the Church, so he knew he could do whatever he wanted, and we would never speak up against him. Even if we said something no one would believe us,” he said.

After the event occurred, the source discovered that one of his friends had experienced the same behavior. In April, they wrote a joint letter to the Vatican Secretariat of State describing their experiences.

The man also spoke to his local bishop, who claimed not to have heard of rumors surrounding the “tactile” inclinations of the nuncio. The bishop did admit that other bishops in the country were aware, a fact that was also documented by Crux in mid-April.

In December, Ventura will turn 75, the age he is required to hand in his resignation to Pope Francis. The Vatican might be tempted to solve the problem without too much scandal by waiting until then, but the alleged victims call for more immediate action.

“How could I not be worried that the guy who nominated 50 bishops in France is a wolf!” the source said, alluding to the fact that nuncios are responsible for handing the pope a list of episcopal candidates.

“The pope and the Vatican should have enough information to fire him. I know he retires in December, and it won’t make a practical difference, but the symbolism is also very important,” he added.

De La Souchère told Crux he will be going to Rome next week accompanied by his lawyers to “be recognized as victims of sexual abuse” and ask the Vatican to strip Ventura of his diplomatic immunity.

“The Holy See has learned through the press that an investigation had been opened by the French authorities against Bishop Luigi Ventura, Apostolic Nuncio in Paris. The Holy See is awaiting the conclusions of the inquiry,” said Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti.

According to the nuncio’s entourage, Ventura “was not the same” after he underwent a brain operation for a large, non-cancerous tumor in March 2015, suggesting that Ventura’s inappropriate behavior was a result of side effects from the operation.

“It’s hard to say with certainty whether a tumor might be the cause of this behavior. A brain tumor and a consequent operation might lead to a behavioral disorder, but there is no scientific evidence to support this,” said Doctor Roberto Delfini, tenured professor at the neurosurgery department of La Sapienza University in Rome, in a June 14 interview with Crux.

But investigations into Ventura’s past show that the nuncio was accused of inappropriate behavior before his operation. From 1978 to 1984, he was assigned as a papal envoy to the Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso and Niger, before the then Vatican Secretary of State, Italian Cardinal Angelo Sodano, appointed him as nuncio to Chile in 1999.

In Chile, he worked closely with ex-priest Fernando Karadima, among the most infamous sexual predators in the history of the South American country, and arguably the Catholic Church. In June 2001, Saint Pope John Paul II named him apostolic nuncio to Canada.

It was here that he was accused of improperly touching Christian Vachon, a young Canadian man, in July 2008.

Soon after the accusation was made, Ventura was sent to France, where the behavior continued.

French Catholic and political activist Samuel Grzybowski, 27, told Crux in a phone interview June 14 that he was a witness to Ventura’s sexual advances on the three occasions they met between 2008 and 2011, years before his brain surgery.

“It’s obvious he wanted to have sex,” Grzybowski said. “He was presented to us as a guy who had influence. He was seductive, for sure.”

“He put his hands on my knees. He said, ‘You are a good boy, what you are doing is incredible.’ He touched the base of my back for a very long time… too long for a careful monsignor,” he added about the 2011 encounter.

Grzybowski said that he and three other people who had had the same experience with Ventura met to discuss what happened, adding that while they “felt uncomfortable,” they never felt attacked. He said that he has often seen such behavior by clerics, including during his visits to the Vatican, and was not too surprised.

“The issue is much bigger than they think or care to acknowledge publicly,” he said. “We need first of all to recognize the reality and to change the way the Church is organized and abolish clericalism.”

Grzybowski didn’t complain after his uncomfortable meeting with Ventura. He shrugged it off and went back to Mass as usual.

“The young people in France are not disappointed because we never hope. We never expect anything,” he said.

Ventura was in attendance at the June 12-15 meeting of over 100 papal envoys at the Vatican, where he greeted Pope Francis.

During the meeting, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin asked the diplomats that their work be “exemplary” and their “conduct crystal clear.”

Follow Claire Giangravè on Twitter: @ClaireGiangrave

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