ROME – Days after the arrest of a parish priest in Perugia on charges of child pornography and prostitution, Italian Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, who oversees the archdiocese, visited the pastor’s community in a show of support and solidarity.

During a special Aug. 4 visit to the parish of San Feliciano, in Perugia, Umbria, Italian Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti said that “If the seriousness of the facts, especially concerning the minors involved, attributed to the priest Don Vincenzo Esposito are true, this story demonstrates a shocking human, moral, and religious degradation.”

Bassetti, who is the archbishop of Perugia and president of the Italian Bishops’ Conference (CEI), visited the community following the arrest earlier this week of Esposito, 63, on charges of child pornography and child prostitution.

A native of Sicily, Esposito has overseen a parish in the San Feliciano neighborhood of Magione, in the regional province of Perugia, since his appointment there in 2013.

He was arrested over the weekend following an investigation by the Italian military police, called the Carabinieri, of Termini Imerese, in Sicily, and is currently behind bars at a jail in Spoleto, Umbria, awaiting interrogation.

Esposito is accused of making sexual advances to four minor boys through the video chat applications WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, and with sending money to the boys, who are under 18, in exchange for explicit images of themselves.

A 50-year-old woman, the mother of one of the victims who is 17, has also been arrested for allegedly receiving payments from Esposito in exchange for the explicit calls or videos of her son.

Esposito allegedly ask for specific content from the youths and would then send the money through a local tobacco shop near his home in San Feliciano to the boys, or to the mother of the 17-year-old.

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In his remarks to the San Feliciano parishioners, Bassetti lamented the situation and Esposito’s alleged misconduct, saying, “The trust of his bishop, of the Church, of his brothers, and of his faithful has been betrayed.”

“He had received the post of pastor while he was still a minor friar with the Franciscans, which, despite his human limitations, he should have carried out with great dignity,” he said, and pointed to the example of San Feliciano’s previous pastors, Don Bruno and Don Abele.

Referring to the figure of the so-called “Cure’ of Ars,” St. Jean Maria Vianney, who is the patron saint of priests and whose feast day is Aug. 4, Bassetti said that Vianney “is the true figure of the parish priest that all communities need.”

Bassetti promised the parish community that, “I will not leave you alone,” and pledged to send them a pastor “who can help you to overcome this unforeseen and painful moment,” however, he did not offer a timeline for when a new priest would be named.

As an act of closeness and comfort to the community of San Feliciano, Bassetti told parishioners that this Sunday, Aug. 8, he would send the Vicar General and auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese, Marco Salvi, to celebrate Sunday Mass there.

Following Bassetti’s remarks, several parishioners, including some catechists, some who assist with the liturgy, and a group of those preparing to receive the Sacrament of Confirmation spoke about the arrest of Esposito and the dismay it had caused within the parish.

According to a statement from the Archdiocese of Perugia, while expressing their pain at the situation, the parishioners also affirmed their support for the parish and the Catholic Church, and thanked Bassetti for his presence and support amid the shocking allegations against the pastor they had welcomed so warmly nearly 10 years ago.

So far, Esposito himself has not made any public remarks about the allegations, however, his lawyer, Renato Vazzana, who is based in Palermo, in comments to local media said the priest has denied the accusations and maintains his innocence.

The Archdiocese of Perugia has not yet announced whether a canonical investigation will be opened into the allegations against Esposito, however, if one is opened, it could be the first time that a 2019 modification to Church law raising the age for what constitutes the crime of possession of child pornography from 14 to 18 is applied.

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