Survivors, advocates push Italian bishops for national abuse inquiry

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ROME – A collective of abuse survivors and advocacy groups have published an open letter to the Italian bishops, who are meeting to elect new leadership, calling for the adoption of several measures aimed at acknowledging the problem and prevention.

“Abuses perpetrated within the Church affects people in their bodies, in their lives, in their conscience: they are violations of human rights. If the Church does not respect human rights, it cannot preach the Gospel,” the letter said.

This, it said, is why “obedience to the Gospel can push us to ‘disobedience’ whenever in the name of ‘prudence’ we risk becoming accomplices to crimes.”

The nearly 50 signatories of the letter asked the bishops to obtain “truth and justice for the victims of abuse – minors, adults, vulnerable people, religious – perpetrated by people in various capacities involved in the Church, as well as preventive measures so that the Church regains credibility and authority.”

Around 20 different Catholic organizations were represented in the letter, which was also signed by individuals from a variety of professions, including former members of Catholic movements such as Focolare and the prelature of Opus Dei.

The letter is part of a wider initiative titled “#ItalyChurchToo,” which is largely spearheaded by Francesco Zanardi, an abuse survivor and founder of the Rete L’Abuso (Abuse Network) organization that tracks cases of clerical abuse.

It was also signed by several other Catholic groups in Italy who, in the past, have criticized the local church’s inability to reckon with the clerical sexual abuse crisis, and who for months have joined Zanardi in calling for an independent national inquiry similar to those being conducted in other European nations.

RELATED: Victims demand independent national abuse inquiry in Italy

In 2018, a German study found that 1,670 priests abused some 3,677 minors from 1946 to 2014. An investigation in France released last year and spanning seven decades found that more than 200,000 children were abused in Catholic institutions.

The Italian bishops themselves have discussed the possibility of a national inquiry similar to those conducted in Germany and France, but the decision on whether to do it and the methodology of the inquiry if it does happen have been postponed until after the election of the bishop’s conference’s new leadership this week.

Italian Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti is the outgoing president of the Italian Bishops’ Conference (CEI), and his replacement will be elected during the bishops’ May 23-27 spring plenary assembly.

Bassetti, whose tenure leading the Italian bishops will come to an end once his successor is named, in the past has insisted on the need for a “qualitative” inquiry rather than a quantitative one, and has said the conference as a whole, which is currently divided on the issue, must agree to it.

The current proposal being discussed by CEI would draw on data from a new program for listening to victims at the diocesan level. It is run by CEI and religious superiors.

In their letter – addressed to Bassetti and all members of CEI, as well as the leaders of several prominent Vatican departments, and which was published to coincide with the start of CEI’s plenary assembly – the #ItalyChurchToo collective asked for “the full cooperation of the Italian Church in an independent investigation, …  that sheds light on the abuses carried out by clergy in Italy.”

The inquiry, they said, must include a variety of competent professionals and must use “qualitative, quantitative and documentary methods at the same time.”

In this spirit, they rejected any proposals for work that would be conducted with the tools and resources of the church itself, which they said, “would not have the necessary characteristics of third party and would be non-credible, deficient and ultimately useless, if not harmful.”

Signatories also called for the opening of archives in dioceses, convents, monasteries, parishes, pastoral centers, and various other educational and scholastic institutions, and asked that Catholic institutions collaborate in an “effective” way with the Italian state in the prosecution of abusers.

“We are not willing to welcome synergies with state institutions that do not contemplate a serious investigation of the past, direct involvement of victims and reparation commensurate with the harm done,” they wrote, stressing the need to take personal responsibility for the abuse, as well as any “omissions” or cover-up along the way.

These and other failings, they said, must be acknowledged and disclosed “for the purpose of proper accountability for the consequences of one’s actions, to which we are all called.”

An expansion of objective and welcoming listening centers with competent professionals in dioceses throughout the country was also requested, “to make the collection of stories and testimonies less psychologically burdensome, easier, and more rigorous.”

It was asked that victims and their families be treated with welcome when they choose to come forward, and that survivors receive adequate financial compensation for the abuse they suffered.

They also called for the “strict application” of recent norms established by Pope Francis to crack down on abuse, including his 2019 legislation Vox Estis Lux Mundi, which among other things requires mandatory reporting of all abuse allegations.

Another request was that the statute of limitations for abuse cases be eliminated, “as is already happening in other countries,” and the signatories noted that effective prevention efforts require broad action, including “formation for ordained ministry, a psycho-affective education of seminarians and candidates to religious life, and a rethinking of the dynamics of pastoral care.”

In light of this, they asked that the mandatory anti-pedophilia certificate provided for the Lanzarote Convention – the Council of Europe’s Convention on the Protection of Children Against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse – be extended to members of the clergy and volunteers working in church environments.

Doing this, they said, would help to “restore greater transparency to ecclesiastical institutions.”

Signatories closed the letter saying their requests are intended “to bring the work of the Italian Church into line with that of other bishops’ conferences and individual dioceses, and to sweep away any doubts regarding reticence the Italian episcopate may have regarding the emergence of the true extent of the phenomenon in Italy.”

“As citizens, victims of abuse, baptized and baptized, mothers, fathers, educators, professionals, we need to see the Italian Church compactly oriented to an operation without shadows and without discounts,” they wrote.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen

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