ROME – A Vatican tribunal Wednesday heard testimony from the accused party in an unusual sexual abuse case, one involving a charge that one minor abused another during their time at a pre-seminary on Vatican grounds that provides altar boys for liturgies in St. Peter’s Basilica and that’s produced roughly 200 priestly vocations over three-quarters of a century.

Father Gabrielle Martinelli, who’s now 28, was ordained to the priesthood in 2017, and who’s now in service as chaplain in a health care facility for the elderly, is accused of having sexually abused a slightly younger pre-seminarian, identified only as “L.G.”, between 2007 and 2012, at a time when both were still minors. (Martinelli entered the pre-seminary in 2005 and remained there until 2013.)

Also charged in the case is Father Enrico Radice, who was the rector of the facility at the time the alleged abuse occurred, and who’s accused of hampering the investigation – what, in American parlance, would be known as “obstruction of justice.”

The abuse allegedly happened at the Pre-Seminary of St. Pius X, which, as the name implies, is a residence for young men, usually of middle school and high school age, considering a vocation to the priesthood somewhere down the line. This particular facility was established in 1956 under Pope Pius XII at the urging of Father Giovanni Folci, who had himself attended a pre-seminary at the age of 10 and whose passion for forming young men stemmed in part from his experience as a military chaplain and German prisoner of war during the First World War.

According to a 2019 Vatican statement, the investigation of the allegations against Martinelli and Radice dates to 2017 when a celebrated Italian journalist named Gianluigi Nuzzi, of Vatileaks fame, reported on a Polish alumnus of the pre-seminary who claimed to have witnessed abuses taking place. At the same time, the Diocese of Como where Martinelli resides released its own statement saying it had learned of the charges in 2013 from a letter, conducted its own investigation and founded the allegations to be unfounded.

In 2019, however, Pope Francis ordered a criminal trial to proceed anyway, after the alleged victim wrote the pontiff directly, and Wednesday’s session of the Vatican tribunal was the fourth hearing in the case. The session was entirely devoted to hearing from Martinelli, who firmly denied the allegations.

To hear Martinelli tell the story, the accusations against him are rooted in internal divisions in the pre-seminary, which pit Radice against the Vice Rector at the time, Father Ambrogio Marinoni, along with the spiritual director, Father Marco Granoli, who died last year. Both sides, according to Martinelli, had a following among the students, and the rivalry created “divisions and jealousies.”

In part, the internal battles had to do with the liturgy. His accuser, Martinelli said, as well as the Polish ex-seminarian quoted in Nuzzi’s report, belonged to a faction of younger seminarians who prefer the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass, known as the “Tridentine rite,” over the post-Vatican II Mass in the vernacular languages. According to Martinelli, so strong were L. G.’s feelings on the matter that he once refused to serve a bishop’s Mass because he intended to use the post-conciliar rite.

Another bone of contention, according to Martinelli, was plan for reform of the pre-seminary that would have opened it also to students of university age, thereby broadening its reach. Traditionalists in the pre-seminary supported the plan, Martinelli said, which was eventually blocked by Cardinal Angelo Comastri, the pope’s Vicar for the Vatican City State.

“They struck at me, but their real target is the pre-seminary,” Martinelli told the court.

At the level of detail, Martinelli said that rooms in the pre-seminary have doors made of wood and glass, so that the rector could look in, for example, and see if someone was talking on a cell phone after lights-out. The doors were never locked and seminarians did not have keys, he said, suggesting there was no opportunity for the alleged abuse to have occurred unobserved.

Martinelli also tried to debunk a claim by L.G. that he’d been assaulted in a bathroom under the Altar of the Chair in St. Peter’s Basilica, arguing that the bathroom is too small, and, in any event, on weekdays (when the event is supposed to have occurred) only one pre-seminarian served the Mass.

Asked by the presiding judge of the tribunal, layman and ex-Italian magistrate Giuseppe Pignatone, why he hadn’t filed a complaint for defamation of character if the charges are false, Martinelli said he’d been instructed by his bishop in Como as well as the diocese’s Vicar General to wait, and also not to discuss the case with anyone other than his parents and his superiors.

On Wednesday the court set dates for three future hearings, including testimony from the accuser on March 17-18 as well as a visit to the pre-seminary by court members.

No matter what happens, this trial is a high-risk, high-reward proposition for the Vatican and Pope Francis.

The risk is that it may conclude abuse happened right under the pope’s nose (in this case, Pope Benedict XVI), at a time when supposed reforms to combat such abuse in the Church were already well underway. It’s also already confirmed that nasty ideological battles over Vatican II are still being waged more than 50 years after it closed, often among current and aspiring priests who weren’t even alive while Vatican II actually was in session.

The Vatican is usually loath to air its dirty laundry in public, but here the decision seems to be to let it all hang out.

The reward, of course, is that Francis and the Vatican will get tremendous credit for transparency should this trial, at the end, be perceived as thorough and fair, and the verdict as reasonable under the circumstances.

In other words, it’s a pay now and claim your purchase later sort of deal, with the value of the purchase depending heavily on the integrity of the process. For that reason, the next three hearings in the case will be closely watched – including, one assumes, by the pontiff himself, who won’t be in the room, but who nevertheless has almost as much riding on the result as the accused and the accusers themselves.

Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.