Vatican abuse summit shines light on long fight for justice

As bishops and cardinals gather in Rome, one man tells of his years-long attempt to see his alleged abuser put on trial

In early February, Arturo Borrelli handcuffed himself to a pole in front of the Vatican in a desperate plea to the Catholic church to take his allegations of sexual abuse by a priest seriously.

Ten years have passed since Borrelli, 43, opened up about the systematic assaults, including rape, that he says he endured as a child from his religion teacher, who was also a priest at a parish in the Naples district of Ponticelli.

Until now, his battle for justice has mostly been dismissed by senior clergy, who either advised him to “pray away” the trauma experienced between the ages of 13 and 17, or suggested he brought the abuse on himself.

“It was only when I got help from a psychiatrist that I realised it wasn’t my fault,” Borrelli told the Guardian. “He made me understand that I was a child, that what happened to me was wrong, and encouraged me to report the priest.”

Police escorted Borrelli away from the Vatican on the day of his protest and, despite their sympathy over his story, he was charged for wasting their time.

On Thursday Pope Francis opened an unprecedented summit on clerical sexual abuse, attended by 180 bishops and cardinals.

Francis told the Catholic hierarchy that they had a responsibility to deal effectively with the crimes of priests who rape and molest children. “Listen to the cry of the young who want justice,” he said. “The holy people of God are watching and expect not just simple and obvious condemnations, but efficient and concrete measures to be established,” he warned.

Sex abuse survivors and members of the ECA (Ending Clergy Abuse) hold their organisation banner as they talk to journalists.
Sex abuse survivors and members of Ending Clergy Abuse hold their organisation banner as they talk to journalists. Photograph: Gregorio Borgia/AP

Bishops were urged to meet survivors of sexual abuse in their respective countries ahead of the conference, called by Pope Francis to address a deeply entrenched issue that many believe the church has so far failed to sufficiently act upon.

Borrelli himself had an audience with the pope last June. He claimed the pontiff had pledged to begin a canonical trial against the accused priest, Silverio Mura.

Just days before Thursday’s summit, he was invited back to the Vatican to meet a senior priest.

During his meeting Borrelli asked how the Holy See was dealing with Mura, who until 2013 was still teaching – under a different name – at a school near the northern city of Pavia. Borrelli also asked about Crescenzio Sepe, the archbishop of Naples, whom he accuses of covering up for Mura.

Borrelli and his lawyer, Carlo Grezio, were told that the case against Mura, who also faces allegations from around 10 other alleged victims, was being pursued within the Vatican’s court and that a decision would be made by June. They were assured that Mura is no longer in contact with children.

Borrelli provided the recording of an encounter with Mura in 2010 during which the priest did not deny abuse and instead invited Borrelli to pray with him. After that, Archbishop Sepe began an investigation against Mura, who then denied the allegations. Sepe said last year that the case was closed due to lack of proof.

Borrelli, whose torment led him to attempt suicide several times, is among the dozens of alleged clerical sexual abuse survivors who have come to Rome in the hope that the summit will provoke a serious change.

His most recent Vatican meeting has raised his expectations. “I believe that Pope Francis is trying to bring change,” he said. “A lot has changed since I began my battle 10 years ago, but then again, they made me suffer very much by not listening earlier.”

Journalists wait outside the Sant’Uffizio gate to the Vatican, before the start of a four-day sex abuse summit.
Journalists wait outside the Sant’Uffizio gate to the Vatican, before the start of a four-day sex abuse summit. Photograph: Domenico Stinellis/AP

Others foresee the four-day summit yielding very little.

Anne Barrett Doyle, the co-founder of Bishop Accountability, which tracks clergy sex abuse cases, told reporters in Rome that – after years of promises – the church was “nowhere near” to enacting the reforms needed to “stop this epidemic” and that the only solution would be a fundamental change in canon law that stopped prioritising priests over the children they have abused.

“So much is at stake this week,” she added. “The Catholics of the world are grieving and disillusioned. Thousands of our children, our brothers, sisters and friends, have been sexually assaulted by clergy for decades now.”

Doyle compared the bishops meeting victims before the conference as being akin to “guilty schoolchildren trying to cram before a test”.

A group of 12 victims met the summit’s organising committee on Wednesday but were disappointed that Pope Francis didn’t attend.

Among them was Francesco Zanardi, who set up Rete l’Abuso, Italy’s only network of clerical abuse survivors. “There were certain points when the pope should have been there,” he said.

Zanardi was abused by a parish priest in the northern Italian region of Liguria from the age of 11 to 15.

A treaty between the Italian government and the Vatican means that the majority of child abuse investigations in Italy are carried out behind a wall of secrecy within the Holy See’s jurisdiction. If found guilty by a Vatican court, most priests end up being transferred to a new diocese rather than being defrocked or jailed.

In January, a UN commission condemned Italy for being complicit in protecting paedophile priests from criminal charges and called for the country to devise a national plan to prevent the sexual abuse of children.

“Italy is very much in collusion with the Vatican; the authorities are timid towards the church,” Zanardi said. “It’s the only country that hasn’t done an investigation yet into the scale of the problem. This either signifies a lack of goodwill, or disinterest, or worse – interests in covering up the crimes of the Catholic church.”

Victims have urged Pope Francis to adopt “zero tolerance” measures towards paedophile priests, while Phil Saviano – whose revelations to Boston Globe journalists in 1992 led to a widespread investigation that exposed sex abuse by the clergy – has asked for the names of thousands of priests found guilty of child abuse to be released.

“I tend to be an optimist, even though I’ve been working on this issue since I first went public in 1992,” said Saviano. “The church has certainly made slow progress since then, but I’m hopeful that some good will come out of this summit.”


Angela Giuffrida in Rome

The GuardianTramp

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