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ROME – On Tuesday, after being presented with three candidates, Pope Francis chose Cardinal Matteo Zuppi to be the new president of the Italian Bishops’ Conference (CEI).
The Bologna archbishop will be tasked with spearheading changes on the way clerical sexual abuse is addressed in the pope’s backyard.
In a recent interview, Pope Francis indicated that he wanted a man ready to “make a change” and that he preferred for him to be “authoritative,” meaning, “a cardinal.”
Zuppi, a leading figure in the Community of Sant’Egidio, arguably the lay movement most favored by the Argentine pontiff, is defined by those who know him as an authentic street priest, always close to the poor, a man of peace – he was part of the team of mediators that facilitated the Peace Accords in Mozambique in the early ’90s – and as an authoritative personality with pastoral sensibilities.
He was born in Rome and ordained a priest in 1981. Pope Benedict XVI made him auxiliary bishop of Rome in 2012, and in 2015, Francis appointed him to Bologna and made him a cardinal in 2019.
He is known as the “bicycling cardinal” because he cycles around the northern Italian archdiocese. He has long been considered “papabile” – a possible candidate to be the next pope – but this man, who prefers to go by “Don Matteo,” just laughs about this idea when asked, saying that he is “lazy.”
Zuppi succeeds Gualtiero Bassetti of Perugia as head of the Italian bishops.
Zuppi’s election to lead CEI follows the tradition of the past quarter of a century of having a prelate who is the de facto pastoral embodiment of the vision of the current pope, meaning he sets the tone for what, in Pope Francis’s mind, a diocesan bishop should look like.
He is generally perceived as a progressive, particularly following his decision to write the preface for the Italian edition of the book Building Bridges by the American Jesuit Father James Martin, which is about Catholic outreach to the LGBT community.
Yet last year, he surprised many when, following a law by Francis to limit the use of the so-called Tridentine rite, he distanced himself from most Italian bishops and decided not to clamp down on the Latin Mass in Bologna.
“I thank the Lord for the trust and I also thank you for the trust,” were Zuppi’s first words upon accepting his new role, according to SIR, the news agency of the Italian bishops. “I was struck by Bassetti’s words, communion, and mission. These are the same words I feel in my heart for this mandate. I will try to do my best, I will try my best. Let us remain united in synodality, in communion, in prayer.”
The same day, during his last remarks as president of CEI, Bassetti said that “communion and mission” seem to be the two key words for the future Italian church.
The prelate also spoke about the bishops’ “commitment to the protection of minors and the prevention of abuse.”
“We want environments that are safe and suitable for the youngest and most vulnerable,” Bassetti said. “For this reason, as already reiterated on other occasions, we intend to promote a better knowledge of the phenomenon of abuse in order to evaluate and make protective and preventive measures more effective.”
“As a former seminary rector, let me tell you that our boys, from the earliest years of their lives, are healthy bearers of an extraordinary energy,” he said. “They only await credible and reliable witnesses, capable of advising on how to transform this extemporaneous life force into lasting happiness.”
Bassetti made no mention of the many survivors who have already come forward after being abused by priests.
Rete l’Abuso (Abuse Network) has 1,300 members and has recorded more than 300 cases of priests accused or convicted of child sexual abuse in the past 15 years, out of a total of 50,000 priests across the country.
During their general assembly this week, the bishops will discuss whether they should have an internal or an independent investigation of abuse similar to those carried out in France and Germany.
Those pushing for an internal investigation say the church has the resources, including the listening centers where victims can register complaints of abuse in 62 percent of Italy’s 226 dioceses.
However, many people, including victims and experts, have long advocated for an external inquiry, because after decades of cover-up and mishandling of allegations, the church lacks the credibility to police itself.
Lay woman Claudia Giampetro, a canon lawyer who works in the area of safeguarding with religious women, called Zuppi a “concrete person, who I am sure will prepare and implement a prevention plan for the church in Italy.”
“To do that, the Italian Bishops’ Conference needs to understand which method would work better and study the independent investigations carried out elsewhere,” she told Crux. “In France it is good that the French Bishops’ Conference joined efforts with the national Conference of Religious Men and Women. Priests, religious and lay people should focus on this now, in view of the synod, as well, as it would increase the credibility of a true synodal process.”
Safeguarding standards and listening centers for victims and survivors are needed at the national level, she said.