ROME – An Italian priest known for involvement in his community was placed under house arrest by local authorities on Wednesday, on charges of allegedly drugging and sexually abusing adult members of his parish.
“The news of the arrest of Father Stefano Segalini and the precautionary measures applied by the judiciary pain us deeply,” said Father Luigi Chiesa, Vicar General of the Diocese of Piacenza-Bobbio in northern Italy where the events allegedly took place, in an August 1 statement.
“The pain of those who declare themselves to be victims of abuse, as well as the pain of he who finds himself accused of such a great crime, requires first of all our closeness and prayer,” Chiesa said.
Segalini led the church of San Giuseppe Operaio, the most frequented parish in the northern Italian town of Piacenza, until last May when he suddenly retired. An arrest warrant issued by a judge after preliminary investigations claims that Segalini allegedly abused adults not in the parish, but during spiritual retreats and evening activities.
Specifically, the charges involve drugging and giving alcohol to young men who attended events at the parish until they were incapacitated, in order to sexually abuse them.
Local Bishop Gianni Ambrosio suspended Segalini last May following reports to the local church of “behaviors considered morally indmissible for a priest of the Catholic Church.”
In a brief statement before Mass about 20 days after the priests’ suspension, Ambrosio told the congregation during the busiest 10 a.m. Mass that the beloved Segalini had to retire awaiting a “clarification of the facts.”
Following the priest’s unexpected suspension, many members of the parish took to social media to voice their support for Segalini. According to media reports, he was well respected in his community for his efforts to collect funds for victims of the Morandi bridge in Genoa, which collapsed in August 2018.
Once information regarding the resons for his arrest began to emerge, the response on Twitter varied from support to outrage.
“I ask you all to give me a little peace and not to write anymore and to pray,” Segalini wrote in a Facebook post last May. “Don’t comment or like, I know you love me.”
While the local church began an internal investigation, Italian judicial authorities pursued an inquiry that ultimately led to Segalini’s arrest on Wednesday.
In the following days, the accused priest will be questioned by a judge during a formal custodial interrogation. Segalini is currently staying in a church facility far from his diocese for “spiritual reflection” by order of his bishop.
In his statement, Chiesa expressed hope that the facts surrounding the arrest be clarified and understood quickly, adding that due to the sensitive nature of the situation, the local church will not release any further comments.
“We ensure closeness and prayer to all of those who are invoved in this very sad situation and especially to the community of San Giuseppe Operaio,” he said.
“While this news fills us with pain, for this reason we are all more urgently called as Christians to offer a responsible and evangelical witness so that, as it has happened other times in the history of the Church, there may be a rebirth even after these wounds,” he said.
During their general assembly May 20-23, the Italian Episcopal Conference (CEI) approved a set of “Guidelines for the Protection of Minors and Vulnerable Persons,” which focus on the prevention of abuse, and which are to be added to previously published 2014 guidelines.
The main novelty is a “moral obligation” for clergy to report verified cases of sexual abuse to civil authorities.
The guidelines, which remain “experimental,” require that when members of the clergy are presented with a report of sexual abuse, they immediately have to determine its veracity through a preliminary investigation. If found to be credible, the allegation will be passed to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican body that handles sexual abuse reports.
Bishops and parishes in Italy can also rely on a newly created network of lay and/or religious experts offering council and best practices to address cases of sexual abuse.
According to local reports, Ambrosio removed Segalini following the accusations and launched an investigation, though it is unclear if he made use of the other tools that the Italian episcopacy has put in place to protect victims and ensure transparency.
Follow Claire Giangravè on Twitter: @ClaireGiangrave
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