Italy's Catholic Church faces pressure for independent abuse inquiry

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Victims of abuse by Roman Catholic priests at a school for the deaf in Argentina, their advocates and lawyers, pose to demand that the Vatican order Argentine Catholic Church officials to hand over documents concerning the school before another trail later this year at the Vatican, February 21, 2020. REUTERS/Philip Pullella/File Photo

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  • Bishops divided over internal or external investigation
  • Victims' groups form consortium, seek government inquiry
  • Bishops due to take final decision in May

ROME, Feb 11 (Reuters) - At a trial under way in Sicily, a 28-year-old Italian is seeking justice against a man he accuses of forcing him to perform sex acts before going on to become a priest.

The victim says the alleged abuse, committed more than a decade ago when he was a minor and the accused was a seminarian leading youth groups, included forced masturbation and oral sex in sacristies and schoolrooms. The accused denies the charges.

The victim went to the police only after the Church failed to act on his accusations, which he spelled out to two priests and at a meeting with a bishop involving his parents.

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Victims' groups say there are thousands of similar cases hidden in Church archives, and they are increasing pressure for an independent investigation in Italy to mirror recent moves in France and Germany.

Nine Italian groups have formed a consortium and on Tuesday will announce a campaign called "Beyond the Great Silence" and unveil a hashtag #ItalyChurchToo.

It aims to put public pressure on the Italian government to investigate past and present abuse in the Church or for the Church to commission an impartial investigation by outsiders.

The campaign is the latest move worldwide to force the Catholic Church to establish the full extent of sexual abuse by clergy that has cost it millions of dollars in compensation to victims.

"The state and the government have to take the initiative on this," Francesco Zanardi, the head of one of the groups, Rete l'Abuso (The Abuse Network), which tracks clerical abuse in Italy, told Reuters.

"If the Church investigates itself, its first objective will be to protect itself," said Zanardi, who is a victim of clergy sexual abuse.

'POWDER KEG'

The campaigners did not say how many sexual abuse crimes they suspect have been committed in Italy, but Rete l'Abuso has documented hundreds of such cases, most of them current or recent.

The German study, released in 2018, showed 1,670 clergymen abused 3,677 minors from 1946 to 2014. The French investigation released last year and covering seven decades, said more than 200,000 children were abused in Catholic institutions.

Pope Francis has expressed shame at the Church's inability to deal with sexual abuse cases and said the Church must make itself a "safe home for everyone". Former Pope Benedict has acknowledged that errors occurred in handling sexual abuse cases when he was Archbishop of Munich and asked for forgiveness.

The results of an independent investigation going back decades could be devastating in Italy, where about 74% of the population are Catholic.

"The Church does not want this because it would be a powder keg," Zanardi said.

Bishops in Italy are divided over what type of investigation should be done.

Some say the Church has the resources, such as diocesan anti-abuse committees, to do the work itself.

Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, who favours an internal investigation, explained his position in a newspaper interview. Paola Lazzarini, head of Women in the Church, which is part of the consortium, told Reuters that Bassetti's position "does not satisfy us one bit".

Other bishops, including Erio Castellucci of Modena and Paolo Lojudice of Siena, have signalled support for commissioning an outside investigation.

Victims groups and some abuse experts within the Church have warned that an inside investigation will not be convincing.

"We can have the best intentions but as long as we do it in-house nobody is going to believe us," Father Hans Zollner, who heads the department of safeguarding and prevention of sexual abuse at Rome's Gregorian University, told Reuters.

A decision is due to be taken in May at a plenary to elect the new president of the Italian Bishops Conference because any investigation will be done during his five-year mandate.

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Reporting by Philip Pullella, Editing by Timothey Heritage

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