A United Nations commission has published a scathing report of Italy’s handling of clerical sexual abuse, stating its concern with numerous cases of children being sexually abused by Catholic priests in the country and calling for an independent and impartial commission of inquiry.
“The committee is concerned about the numerous cases of children having been sexually abused by religious personnel of the Catholic Church in the State party and the low number of investigations and criminal prosecutions,” said a Feb. 7 report of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child.
The committee had summoned the Italian government Jan. 22-23 before the UN’s High Commissioner in Geneva regarding the implementation of the 1990 Convention on the Rights of the Child. Among the main topics was Italy’s alleged complicity in the Catholic Church’s child abuse scandals.
Italy was called to answer about its protection of the rights of minors regarding immigrant and refugee children and awareness campaigns throughout the territory, but the commission left ample space for the issue of clerical abuse.
The committee asked for a national plan to prevent and combat sexual exploitation of children and asked that the country “establish an independent and impartial commission of inquiry to examine all cases of sexual abuse of children by religious personnel of the Catholic Church.”
Other recommendations include “the transparent and effective investigation of all cases of sexual abuse allegedly committed by religious personnel of the Catholic Church, the criminal prosecution of alleged perpetrators, the adequate criminal punishment of those found guilty, and the compensation and rehabilitation of child victims, including those who have become adults.”
The UN panel, composed of experts in the protection of the rights of the child, invited the Italian government to establish safe channels for children to report abuse and to ensure their protection by preventing perpetrators who have been found guilty from having further access to minors.
During the hearing in late January, the committee addressed the fourth article of the 1929 Lateran Treaty between the Italian state and the Vatican, which, according to its analysis, allows clerics to skirt reporting clerical abuse to Italian authorities.
This issue surfaced in the UN committee’s final conclusions, which asked Italy to “undertake all efforts vis-à-vis the Holy See to remove obstacles to effective criminal prosecutions of religious personnel of the Catholic Church suspected of sexual abuse of children, in the 1985 revised Lateran Pacts, in order to fight impunity for such acts.”
In February 2014, the Committee on the Rights of the Child issued another blistering report accusing the Vatican of fostering a “code of silence” that “systematically” put the reputation of the Church and offending priests over the protection of child victims.
At the time, the panel also called for changes in Catholic teaching on issues such as abortion, contraception and gay marriage.
In its new report, the committee stressed the importance of making it mandatory for religious personnel “to report any case of alleged sexual abuse of children” to the Italian government.
It also suggested that Italy amend its adherence to the Convention on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse signed in 2007 by the Council of Europe in Lanzarote, Spain, to include members of the Catholic Church. The document is the first international treaty addressing sexual abuse in the family and applying regulation to monitor offenders and those who work in close contact with children.
The report was applauded by Rete L’abuso, the only network for clerical abuse survivors in Italy, which presented documentation regarding victims and abuse cover-up by clergy to the committee ahead of the hearing.
“I am very satisfied,” said Francesco Zanardi, clergy abuse survivor and president of Rete L’abuso, in a phone interview with Crux Feb. 11. “The fact that our complaints have been recognized by the United Nations gives [Italy] strength to react.”
The survivor network began sending material to the high commissioner in Geneva last June with the participation of “Ending Clerical Abuse Global,” an association present in 18 countries and four continents.
In Italy, as in many other parts of the world, it is difficult to establish the numbers and scope of sexual abuse of minors by clergy.
According to Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, head of the Center for Child Protection at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University and a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, the situation in the peninsula can vary from diocese to diocese.
“We have dioceses that have dealt with this issue promptly and systematically,” Zollner said in an interview with Crux, while “many others are much further back, partly because they are small and there’s a scarcity of competent resources available.”
Italian bishops have already created new guidelines for the protection of minors, to be added to their previous ones written in 2014 and focusing especially on prevention. Meanwhile, the episcopal conference of Italy has established a national network to aid victims and clergy.
The network already represents an answer to the UN’s demands on the part of local clergy, but it also represents an important and practical step ahead of the meeting by heads of bishops’ conferences at the Vatican Feb. 21-24 to discuss the abuse scandals in the Church called for by Pope Francis.
“In a certain sense, this is already a result of the imminent meeting of bishops, whose convocation has accelerated or aroused various initiatives of Episcopal Conferences in the world, including the Italian one,” said Zollner, who is among the summit organizers, adding that while “the setting is right, of course we must put it into practice.”
But the numbers of the cases of clerical abuse by clergy in Italy remain a mystery even to the Italian bishops, who in a recent press conference admitted to not having any data.
Numbers aside, Zollner said, “in Italy, as in many other countries, widespread awareness of the problems of child sexual abuse is growing and are reported more frequently,” showing a significant shift in culture by the media, clergy and society.
“The problem is there, it should not be denied,” he added, “and the Italian Church must tackle it decisively in an overall way.”