New Italian church leader faces calls for abuse probe

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis on Tuesday appointed a bishop in his spitting image, Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, as the new chair of Italy’s Bishops’ Conference, as Italy’s Catholic Church comes under increasing pressure to counter its legacy of clergy sex abuse with an independent inquiry.

Francis’ much-anticipated election was announced on day two of the conference’s spring session. Zuppi, 66, is currently Archbishop of Bologna and a long-time member of the Community of Sant’Egidio, a Catholic charity close to Francis.

The Italian Catholic Church is one of the few in Western Europe that has not opened its archives to independent researchers to determine the extent of abuse and cover-ups over the past few decades. Whether by government mandate, parliamentary inquiry, or church initiation, such reports have revealed systematic problems in Ireland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and France, for example, that have allowed thousands of children to be abused by Catholic priests. Churches in Spain and Portugal recently agreed to launch similar investigations.

But the Italian church has so far resisted calls from survivors and interest groups to follow suit, though conference officials have said they will await the appointment of a new president later this month before making any announcements.

Zuppi’s outgoing predecessor, Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, addressed the issue in general in his closing speech on Tuesday, but made no commitments. “We intend to promote a better understanding of the abuse phenomenon in order to evaluate and make protection and prevention measures more efficient,” said Bassetti.

Zuppi generally receives positive marks from the progressive wing of the church, particularly the LGBTQ community. He wrote the foreword to the Italian edition of American Jesuit Rev. James Martin’s book Building Bridges on the need for the church to reach out more to gay Catholics.

“We hope his nomination will be a real turning point for the church,” Italian LGBTQ community leader Franco Grillini said on Instagram.

However, Italian advocates for victims of clergy abuse were less convinced that he would commission a comprehensive, independent investigation based on church archives. Recent proposals at the conference focus on a more limited internal investigation.

“We reject in advance any hypothesis of a work carried out with Church tools and resources that do not have the necessary qualities of third parties and would not be credible, deficient and ultimately useless if not harmful,” members of The #ItalyChurchToo- Movement wrote in an open letter to the conference leadership ahead of Zuppi’s appointment.

Two new books have been released in recent days documenting the problem in the Pope’s backyard, while a new national newspaper, Domani, has launched a regular series on “Violence in the Italian Church,” supported by a crowdfunding initiative.

The aim of the series “is to lift the veil of hypocrisy thanks to which the Italian Bishops’ Conference, with the help of the wink of the national media, manages to make people believe that the problem only exists in other countries,” Domani said of his crowdfunding -Attractiveness.

The reluctance of mainstream Italian media to expose the issue has been cited by Lucetta Scaraffia, a former editor of the Vatican’s women’s magazine, as one of the reasons the issue has yet to reach a crisis point in heavily Catholic Italy.

She and journalist Franca Giansoldati and historian Anna Foa recently published Lamb of God, in which they enumerate the cases of abuse in the Italian Church, reported by the main advocacy resource group Rete l’Abuso (Abuse Network), a foundation , collected became a member of the #ItalyChurchToo movement.

Scaraffia said the network’s archive shows a pattern where typically poor children from church-dependent families are bullied by robber priests who choose them precisely because of their vulnerability. The church managed to save the priests by turning to powerful lawyers who offered minimal payouts of €15,000 to €25,000 to families in need if they chose not to file criminal charges, she said.

“Unfortunately, in Italy, it is primarily the believers who are interested in this, but the rest of society is not. The newspapers never talk about it, or only briefly, and then only the gory details in the local section,” she said in an email.

Iacopo Scaramuzzi, author of Sex of the Angels, about the church’s debates on abuse, feminism and gays, said Zuppi has been more open to questions of sexual morality than other Italian bishops. However, he noted that the Italian bishops and society at large are reticent on the issue and “receive the sexual abuse crisis very late”.

“I hope that he has the courage to choose a path – an independent commission on abuses in the context of the only Italian church – that will be viewed with respect by other European countries that have already taken this path … and that brings the survivor Justice at last,” he said. New Italian church leader faces calls for abuse probe


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