ROME – A Vatican court Jan. 24 overturned the acquittal of a priest accused of sexually abusing a younger student at the Vatican’s St. Pius X Pre-Seminary, delivering a guilty verdict in a landmark case that marked the first ever to go to trial for alleged sexual abuse within Vatican walls.
Upon appeal from the prosecution, the October 2021 acquittal of Father Gabriele Martinelli, who was accused of abusing another student from 2007 to 2012 when he studied at the St. Pius X Pre-Seminary, was overturned by the Vatican’s appeals court.
Martinelli, initially acquitted due to a lack of evidence, this week was found guilty of “corrupting a minor” for sexual abuse committed between 2008-2009 and sentenced to two years and six months in prison.
The St. Pius X seminary, previously located inside a palazzo within the Vatican gardens, houses boys aged 12-18 who serve as altar boys at papal Masses inside St. Peter’s Basilica. It was established by Pope Pius XII in 1956 to house young men and boys from Italian dioceses who felt a potential call to the priesthood.
Abuse scandals involving the pre-seminary erupted in 2017 when former altar boys went public with allegations of misconduct by Martinelli and cover-up by the seminary superiors.
Martinelli’s primary accuser, named “L.G.” in court documents, said Martinelli had abused his authority as a more senior seminarian to force him into the “carnal acts” of sodomy and masturbation, using violence and threats, from 2007-2012.
Though both were minors at the time of the abuse, the charge was that given Martinelli’s status as an older, more senior seminarian, he had authority over the younger men which he used to manipulate and threaten them into being abused.
The former rector of the seminary, Father Enrico Radice, was also accused of having helped Martinelli avoid investigators by discrediting L.G.’s allegations as baseless.
Throughout the trial that opened against both men in 2021, former seminarians described a toxic, homophobic atmosphere in the closed world of the seminary, where some boys were bullied, and the priest superiors did little to protect them.
However, Martinelli during the hearings denied molesting L.G., saying the allegations were unfounded, implausible and the fruit of “jealousy” because he was eventually ordained a priest. Radice also denied knowing anything about abuse or impeding the investigation.
Three witnesses also testified that Italian Cardinal Angelo Comastri, who was relieved of his position as Archpriest of St. Peter’s Basilica in 2021 as the trial was ongoing, or his aides, had been aware of sexual abuse allegations at a pre-seminary on Vatican grounds and took no action. However, Comastri has faced no charges or legal probe.
In May 2021, as the trial was ongoing, Pope Francis issued a decree moving the St. Pius X seminary outside Vatican City, and that as of September of that year, it would be located somewhere in Rome.
The Vatican did not say why Francis made the decision at the time, but the statement announcing the decision said the move had been under study for some time and would also put the boys closer to their schools and recreational activities in Italy’s capital.
Vatican City is a sovereign state, meaning its own law enforcement officials were responsible for investigating any potential crime in the seminary. However, the pre-seminary itself was run by a religious order of the Diocese of Como, Italy, which complicated the chain of responsibility and created legal hassles during the 2021 trial.
When Martinelli was absolved of “of aggravated rape and aggravated lewd acts” in 2021, Radice was also absolved of “aiding and abetting sexual violence.”
Though Martinelli’s non-guilty verdict has been overturned, Radice’s has not, and he remains acquitted of the crimes of which he was accused.
Martinelli’s guilty verdict was possible due to a change in Vatican law made by Pope Francis in July 2019, when he removed the cause of inadmissibility based on the law in force at the time of the alleged crimes.
It marks the first time someone has been found guilty of sexual abuse committed on Vatican grounds.
In a similar case, the Vatican in 2018 convicted Monsignor Carlo Alberto Capella, a former staff member at the Vatican nunciature in Washington, of possessing and distributing child pornography and sentenced him to five years in prison.
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