ROME—Giuseppe remembers the day his mother betrayed him. He was 12 years old and his parish priest in the southern Italian town of Salerno forced him to touch his erect penis. Giuseppe remembers the starchy black cloth of the priest’s cassock and how at first he thought maybe the priest was hiding a toy for him. Giuseppe told his mother about the priest’s penis and told her it made him feel uncomfortable. He told The Daily Beast that his mother called him a liar and punished him for “making up stories.”
It was the beginning of a sexually abusive relationship that lasted more than four years and included forced fellatio and rape. Finally, Giuseppe ran away from home and the abuse. He ended up in a spiral of substance abuse that eventually landed him in jail. Now he is part of a group of survivors who are calling for a parliamentary review of Italy’s Catholic church.
Italy is one of the few Catholic countries in the world that has so far resisted calls to investigate credible reports of widespread clerical sex abuse against minors. On Tuesday, a group of Catholic organizations will march on the Vatican and call on the government to launch the same sort of independent investigations that have pulled back the veil of secrecy on clerical abuse in the U.S., Germany, Ireland, and France. The group has named their movement Oltre il Grande Silenzio or Beyond the Great Silence and many predict that Italian clerics may be among the worst offenders in the world, in part because of the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church in Rome.
The Vatican has long resisted calls to investigate the church in Italy, according to Francesco Zanardi, a vocal survivor from the northern town of Savona, who runs the support group Rete L’Abuso or Abuse Network. He has launched a social media campaign called #ItalyChurchToo. He has likened the Vatican’s ability to silence accusations against Italian priests to the mafia’s use of the omerta or code of silence.
Zanardi sends out a daily newsletter publishing credible accusations of abuse and news when pedophile priests are brought to justice—which is rare in Italy, in part because of what Zanardi calls “interference” by the Catholic Church in the Italian judicial system. He says crucifixes hang in all Italian courtrooms not as a show of faith but “as a threat and reminder that the Church is more powerful than even God.”
On Friday, he will launch a database with the media group Left, that will list convicted Italian priests, criminal cases, and victims’ accounts of abuse. It will be the first such public account in the country, and he says they will start with more than 350 proven cases of abuse by priests, but that there are “hundreds and hundreds of victims” who are too afraid to come forward because of the church's influence in the country. “In the absence of action by the State and the Church, the time has come for a turning point,” he says. “We will be the 'Trojan horse’ in a system that sees institutions defenseless with respect to the problem of pedophile priests.”
The Vatican did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
He says they are petitioning the Italian government to circumvent interference from the church. “The solution cannot come from the church because it has demonstrated in sensational cases how deep the cover-up goes,” he says, referring to recent revelations that retired Pope Benedict XVI recently admitted he lied about attending a meeting about a pedophile priest in Germany. He says that many victims of clerical abuse would like to come forward but that the system is stacked against them. “Only after a long time do you realize that other problems you have, such as alcoholism or drug addiction, were caused by that episode.”
In a Feb. 7 report, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child also weighed in on the Italian church and the lack of investigation despite hundreds of complaints. “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,” the report states, and called on the Italian government to “establish an independent and impartial commission of inquiry to examine all cases of sexual abuse of children by religious personnel of the Catholic Church.”
If the government complies, Zanardi says it will be a late start to address a problem that he says could have saved thousands of victims. “We can never get back what we lost,” he told The Daily Beast. “ But we can still save innocent children from becoming angry victims.”