Catholic church still heaven for child abusers

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The last time Italian journalist Emiliano Fittipaldi wrote an exposé about corruption at the heart of the Roman Catholic Church, it landed him in a Vatican court facing a possible jail sentence on charges that he had illegally obtained confidential church papers in the course of his reporting.

Now, six months after the 42-year-old reporter was cleared of all charges, Fittipaldi is taking on the church again. This time in a new book that accuses Pope Francis of doing “close to nothing” to stop clerical sexual abuse in Italy and around the world, despite the Argentinean pope’s frequent assertions that he has zero tolerance for the abuse of children or those who protect abusers.

In Lussuria (Lust), which will be released in Italian by publisher Feltrinelli on Thursday, Fittipaldi methodically pores over court documents and cites interviews with priests and judicial officials to paint a damning picture of the first three years of Francis’s papacy. Fittipaldi claims that 1,200 plausible complaints of molestation against boys and girls from around the world have been brought to the Vatican’s attention in that period. In some of the twenty cases of alleged sexual abuse by priests in Italy in 2016, Fittipaldi writes, priests have been convicted of abuse without the church taking any canonical action against them.

Fittipaldi also devotes attention to the case of Australian cardinal George Pell, who was appointed by Francis to reform church finances and has remained in that senior position despite questions over whether Pell protected serial abusers in his archdiocese in Australia decades ago. Pell has denied the allegations against him but a counsel assisting a royal commission looking at child abuse in Australia has argued that there was evidence that Pell should have taken stronger action against one paedophile priest whose case has been examined.

Francis, who did not accept Pell’s resignation in June when the Australian cardinal reached retirement age, has declined to pass judgement on him. When he was asked by reporters about a separate abuse investigation into Pell by Victoria state police the pope said “justice has to take its course”. Last November, Francis did however decide not to renew Pell’s membership in a Vatican office that handles the church’s liturgical practice. He was one of several traditionalists whose membership was not renewed.

“The principle message of the book – the problem – is that the phenomenon of paedophilia is not being fought with sufficient force. Across the world, the church continues to protect the privacy of the paedophiles and also the cardinals [who protect them],” Fittipaldi said in an interview with the Guardian.

“Francis is not directly defending the paedophiles, but he did close to nothing to contrast the phenomenon of paedophilia,” he added.

It is not a new charge against the pope. While Francis is popular, especially for his strong views in support of poor and marginalised people, groups that advocate for survivors of sexual abuse have regularly criticised Francis for failing to take concrete steps to prevent and expose abuse, even though he has used strong words to condemn sexual violence by priests. A papal commission created by Francis early in his papacy has only met three or four times in its history, Fittipaldi said. Separately, a Vatican proposal to create a tribunal to investigate bishops who cover up for abusers, which was celebrated by advocacy groups when it was announced in 2015, has inexplicably been stalled.

The Vatican did not respond to a request for comment on the book or the assertion that Francis has not done enough to tackle abuse.

Fittipaldi alleges that under Francis’s watch, priests who practice omertà – a term that refers to a code of silence, usually by the mafia – have been favoured by the church.

Among other incidents, Lussuria delves into the case of Mauro Inzoli, a priest who was nicknamed “Don Mercedes” for his rich taste. Inzoli was found guilty of molesting children in 2012 by the church body that examines such cases and was defrocked by Francis’s predecessor, Pope Benedict. But in 2014, under Francis, Inzoli’s punishment was softened and he was able to return to the clergy under limited conditions, and to enjoy a life of “humility and prayer”. In the meantime, civil authorities in Italy prosecuted him and last year he was convicted of abuse. At the time of his conviction, a judge criticised the Holy See for not turning over evidence in the case.

“The Vatican refused to give judges documents because it is considered a pontifical secret,” Fittipaldi wrote.

Clerical sexual abuse has received close media scrutiny in the US since 2002, when the Boston Globe exposed hundreds of abuse cases and brought the issue to light. But in Italy, even after the success of the film Spotlight, which chronicled the Globe’s investigation and won the Academy Award for best film last year, the issue is still considered a taboo and has never been viewed as an endemic problem.

“In all the Catholic countries, in Italy, Spain, South America, the sexual crimes of the priests are hard to tell. There is a kind of auto-censoring, on the part of journalists and victims because of the shame and because the culture of the church is very strong,” Fittipaldi said.

In Lussuria, he describes dozens of cases that are covered marginally in daily newspapers in Italy, as individual tiles that, when put together and seen from a distance, create a mosaic.

Fittipaldi was working on Lussuria during his trial for illegally obtaining secret documents. Speaking to the Guardian, he recalled:“It was ironic to be there, during the trial. I was thinking that many priests and bishops and cardinal were involved in sexual abuse and the Vatican does nothing. They preferred going after journalists.”