ROME – In an effort to respond to cases and allegations of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church over the years, Pope Francis has affirmed a “zero tolerance” policy and stressed that the Vatican must be committed to enforcing accountability.
Yet two recent scandals suggest that while the Church may have developed strong controls over clergy, in cases that involve lay organizations, it sometimes struggles to impose effective oversight.
“Let’s put it this way: The process in the Church for dealing with lay people has got no teeth,” Father Francis Morrissey, a Canadian expert on canon law, told Crux.
One case is rooted in Peru, where the leader of a lay Catholic movement called the Sodalitium of Christian Life was accused of sexually and physically abusing members.
The other is set on the southern Italian island of Sicily, where a movement known as the “Catholic Culture and Environment Association” (ACCA) is under scrutiny for allegations against its lay leader, Piero Alfio Capuana, accused of sexually abusing at least six underage girls over a period of 25 years.
Among the things both situations have in common is that Church officials have been accused of being slow to respond.
In the case of the Sodalitium, allegations began to emerge in press reports in 2011, with no action by either Church authorities or the Peruvian justice system.
In a statement, the Sodalitium said that since 2014, meaning three years after the allegations first appeared, the accused lay leader, Luis Fernando Figari, has “intensified his life of retirement.”
While the Vatican officially recognized the Sodalitium as a lay association in 1997, the ACCA in Sicily is publicly listed as civil and does not appear on the website of the Diocese of Acireale, where it’s located.
A day after the arrest of Capuana on August 1, the diocese released a statement expressing “disconcert and pain for the victims” but stressing that the “nature of the association is civil.” It also said that though a diocesan priest offered catechesis at the association’s headquarters, he did so “with no suspicion of the occult perpetration of criminal acts.”
The statement concluded with the diocese hoping that the civil court will bring forward its proceedings and establish responsibility, so that “justice may be done.”
The archdiocese declined to give Crux any further comment on the subject.
According to a pre-trial detention order from the local police for Capuana and his accomplices, which was obtained by Crux, the former bishop of the diocese appears to have been aware of the abuses taking place in ACCA for some time.
“In order to stop Capuana from continuing in the abuses,” the mother of one of the victims told prosecutors, “I visited the bishop of the Diocese of Acireale, who was at the time Pio Vigo. The prelate, having spoken to us, told us that he had been aware of the facts for more than thirty years.”
“Capuana,” she added, “continued with his behavior also because he was protected by ‘strong’ powers,” although she didn’t specify what those “powers” were.
Experts on Church law say the diocese may not be able to disassociate itself from responsibility for the association, whatever its precise ecclesiastical standing.
“I am not sure (the diocese) can simply wash its hands,” said Morrisey, pointing to canon 305 of the Code of Canon Law.
That canon states: “All associations of the Christian faithful are subject to the vigilance of competent ecclesiastical authority, which is to take care that the integrity of faith and morals is preserved in them, and is to watch so that abuse does not creep into ecclesiastical discipline.”
Claudia Gianpietro, an Italian canon law expert, said that associations such as ACCA “are subject to the supervision and jurisdiction of the diocesan bishop.”
She pointed to a 1920 Vatican ruling affirming that the bishop of Corrientes, Argentina, could monitor a local lay association of St. Vincent de Paul, saying that even if he can’t “direct” such organizations if they don’t have specific ecclesiastical approval, he nevertheless has “the right and obligation to be vigilant.”
Despite the fact that ACCA was founded by a priest, Father Stefano Cavalli, who was a ‘spiritual son’ of Padre Pio, the famed 20th century Capuchin stigmatic and healer, the association acted without any official oversight from the local diocese.
“The bishop should pay a canonical visit to the private association, in accordance with the law and the statutes of the association,” Gianpietro said.
Furthermore, canon 300 of the Code states, “No association is to assume the name Catholic without the consent of competent ecclesiastical authority.” Crux has not been able to establish whether the ACCA, which includes the word ‘Catholic’ in its name, ever obtained the consent of the diocese.
Considering that members of ACCA met every Sunday for Mass at their local parish, and that a diocesan priest, according to the diocese’s statement, visited the headquarters of the association for catechesis, it’s fair to assume that if local ecclesiastic authorities had wanted to exercise oversight over ACCA, they had opportunities to do so.
In the case of Sodalitium, being officially recognized, the Vatican was “the competent ecclesiastic authority” for monitoring its teachings and members.
At the time, Crux reached out to then-Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi, who said the years-long delay in dealing with the allegations was due to “the complexity and diversity of positions and interpretations” regarding the accusations against Figari, as well as legal issues.
So far, Figari has been neither judged nor sentenced, either by civil authorities in Peru or by the Church’s own tribunals. In 2017, the Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life directed that Figari be “prohibited from contacting, in any way, persons belonging to the Sodalitium Christianae Vitae, and in no way have any direct personal contact with them.”
The Sodalitium agreed in January to pay $2.8 million to more than 66 people who reported physical and sexual abuse by Figari.
When St. Pope John Paul II in 2003 allowed a statute of limitations under canon law to be set aside on a case-by-case basis for sexual abuse of minors by clergy, the change did not apply to laity, making it more complicated to pursue ecclesiastical sanctions alongside whatever civil or criminal liability the individual may face.
The situation may be different for the 73-year-old Capuana, who allegedly continued to abuse underage members of the association up to the present time, and now risks spending six to 12 years in prison on criminal charges.
“Clerics, religious people and lay people who commit such abuses should be brought to justice,” Gianpietro said.