Italy, what kind of country are you?
Marc Artzrouni, Europe Coordinator
Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP)
February 21, 2022
Italy is a country that has had a long and cozy relationship with the Vatican which sits in the heart of Rome. Italy is a country where 80% of the population is catholic and the Church's moral authority is mostly unchallenged. Italy is a country which under Mussolini signed a treaty with the Vatican that provides the latter with "legal autonomy" from the Italian state.
Italy is a country where the priest Gianni Bekiaris can keep an eight-year-old boy in sexual slavery for 16 years. When he was finally reported to religious authorities Bekiaris was found guilty under canon law and was banned from "administering his duties with minors" - but not defrocked.
As a result of the aforementioned "legal autonomy" and of Italy's statutes of limitations, Bekiaris escaped civil prosecution. When ambushed by a BBC reporter who asked him if he was a pedophile, he answered that "those are your words". He's right to protest: he's no pedophile, he's a monster, a monster who's walking free. How shocking is that?
This reminds me of a poignant remark by Peter Isely, a founding member of SNAP, during an Aspen Institute debate in 2019: "In the Catholic Church you cannot be a married man and a priest; you cannot be a gay man and a priest, but you can be a pedophile and a priest".
Italy is a country whose main survivor's association, Rete L'Abuso, has a map with "Google drops" indicating where cases of abuse took place. There are so many, the country is covered with drops - teardrops from the victims of priests who violate the innocent and vulnerable in the most depraved way - and too often get away with their crimes. italy is a country that in 2022 has had enough. Enough with the hundreds of priests who have abused countless youngsters with impunity over the decades; enough with the Vatican's cover-ups; enough with the Italian state's complicity in these crimes, synonymous with "justice denied".
This February a dozen victims' associations, including Rete l'Abuso, spurred by similar movements in France, the United States, Portugal, and Germany, are demanding an independent investigation into past and present clerical sexual abuse. The movement's banner reads “Oltre il Grande Silenzio”, i.e. Beyond the Great Silence. This is referred to the Church's version of omerta, the mafia's code of conduct that requires absolute silence in the face of questions or investigations by the outside world.
The reaction of the Italian Catholic Church to the proposed investigation is the same as everywhere and is depressingly familiar. Obfuscation and foot-dragging are the norms, with a zest of "whataboutism" by which it spreads the blame to other segments of society. It is true that sexual abuse happens in the family, school, sports and other institutions. What makes it so egregious in the case of the Church is the appalling hypocrisy of an institution that routinely and grotesquely violates its most basic principles of love and caring.
SNAP stands behind the efforts in Italy and elsewhere to investigate then eradicate sexual abuse in religious and other settings.
The investigation will lift the veil of secrecy and expose the scope of the problem. The eradication will require i) prevention efforts aimed at children and others; ii) healing for victims; and iii) justice - with its most important ingredient: deterrence.
Indeed, sexual abuse will only be eradicated when a priest no longer feels he can abuse a child behind the alter with impunity. He will think twice if there is a real chance that the child will run out screaming and tell all to parents who can be confident that justice will be served and the perpetrator put away. This will take time but will happen.