Italy’s Catholic church has identified 68 alleged abusers in an investigation into the sexual abuse of children and vulnerable individuals spanning a period of just two years – a timeframe criticised by victims’ advocates as a “joke”.
The figure is astonishingly high given the inquiry only targeted the 2020-2021 period and only referred to data provided by “listening centres” that were established by dioceses across Italy in 2019 specifically to receive complaints of abuse.
The report, part of the church’s first-ever inquiry into abuse in its ranks, was published by the Italian bishops conference on Thursday. It found that 89 people had made allegations against 68 suspected abusers, among them priests and lay people including church workers and religion teachers.
Of the 89 complaints, 12 involved children under the age of 10, and 61 were from children aged 10-18. Sixteen of the alleged victims were over the age of 18, a group the church defined as “vulnerable individuals”.
A separate investigation focusing on allegations dating back to 2000 is being carried out, although it is unclear when the results will be published.
A network of victims’ groups, religious and lay associations had pushed for an independent inquiry to be commissioned by the Italian state, akin to those commissioned in the US, Ireland, Chile, France and Germany which revealed the damning extent of sexual abuse and attempts by the Catholic church in those countries to cover it up.
Based on the figures announced in Thursday’s report, Francesco Zanardi, who set up Rete L’Abuso, Italy’s main victims’ association, estimated that the number of sexual abuse victims dating back over the past 22 years could be almost 2,000.
“It was already disappointing that the report discarded allegations made before the year 2000,” Zanardi said. “Sixty-eight abusers in just two years indicates that there is a problem, but the timeframe of the report is a joke and excludes a bunch of figures – there is no data from magistrates or Rete L’Abuso. They only referred to the ‘listening centres’. This report is shamefully inadequate.”
The Vatican holds files on 613 abuse cases reported from Italy dating back to 2000.
Archbishop Lorenzo Ghizzoni said during a press conference that the report was “just a start”, adding that awareness of the gravity of sexual abuse against children within the Catholic church had grown and that real change started “when we began putting ourselves in the shoes of the victims”.
“We shared their pain and wounds, and starting to take this factor into account meant that we began to seriously change our style,” Ghizzoni said.
However, he reiterated that “93% of cases of abuse occur in the family or within the ‘circle of trust’ created in environments frequented by minors”. “It is time that the dirty laundry is no longer washed in the family,” he said. “We must do it as a church, but this awareness must grow in all areas of civil society.”
Ghizzoni said it was a “moral obligation” to denounce allegations of abuse, although it was unclear which authority reports should be referred to.
Victims’ advocates have repeatedly called on the Italian state to bring paedophile priests to justice and come up with a plan to protect children from sexual abuse by clergy.
A treaty between the Italian government and the Vatican means 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. Of those found guilty by an Italian court, few are imprisoned.
Findings of an inquiry in France released last year found that 216,000 children had been abused by clergy over seven decades. A report in Germany criticised the former pope Benedict XVI for allegedly failing to take action against four priests accused of child sexual abuse when he was archbishop of Munich between 1977 and 1982.
“It is disgraceful that the Italian state does nothing about this,” said Zanardi. “In normal countries, there has been an independent inquiry, but not in Italy. Something doesn’t add up.”
Cristina Balestrini, who leads a group for abuse victims and their families, said: “It is scandalous. This report doesn’t talk about helping victims or getting justice for them. What is the point of it?”