Following a spate of unsubstantiated claims of sexual abuse by priests, Italy’s Church leadership fears that an unbalanced media fixation on the issue is coming to its shores.
In August, a well-known priest who has devoted his life to establishing rehabilitation centers for drug addicts was accused by four former patients of sexual abuse. In the face of widespread media coverage, Father Pietro Gelmini, or “Don Pierino” as he is familiarly known, strongly protested his innocence.
The 82-year-old priest said the allegations were made by former adult patients who had been thrown out of his Incontro (Encounter) Community for theft. In early September, the Italian press reported that another 50 people had claimed the elderly priest abused them.
However, none of the accusers have brought formal charges against Father Gelmini, whose community numbers 164 centers in Italy and 74 in other countries.
The accusers are former drug addicts and criminals.
“They accuse me because I removed them from the community,” Father Gelmini told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera Sept. 11. “Some of them have been uncovered as offenders and were caught. It is their revenge. I am innocent and therefore remain absolutely calm. I carry the cross and I pray for them.”
Father Gelmini has been vigorously defended by his supporters, who include prominent politicians from across the political spectrum. And, although he did not directly refer to the case, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone wrote Father Gelmini at the end of August, assuring him of Pope Benedict XVI’s prayers so that he can “continue to help so many marginalized girls and boys recover and grow in their humanity.”
Not long after the Father Gelmini story broke, Italian newspapers reported on another case in Turin. Prosecutors there were investigating claims that clergy at a prestigious Salesian school had paid a 24-year-old man to keep quiet about past abuse. Again, no formal charges had been made, but that didn’t deter extensive press coverage.
Cardinal Bertone, one of the school’s former pupils, criticized the media for paying so much attention to unproven accusations.
While on a visit to the United States in late August, Cardinal Bertone said the focus was “a false way to present the Church, as if you presented a dark fragment of the great Sistine Chapel ... which [after restoration] has reacquired Michelangelo’s original colors,” Reuters reported.
Said Cardinal Bertone, “For a week, in newspapers or on TV news, to always see the outside of this institute is truly shameful and mystifying. It’s absolutely something to condemn.”
In an Aug. 12 interview with the Italian daily newspaper Il Giornale, Vatican journalist Vittorio Messori warned that Italy was importing “an American obsession with pedophilia.”
Messori said that a politically correct mentality has caused problems in some parts of the Church in America. “The result: conformity to the logic of the world that has brought many homosexuals into seminaries, those who are always looking for male environments, with a corresponding, inevitable explosion of scandals,” Messori said.
The John Jay Report, commissioned by the U.S. bishops’ National Review Board for sexual abuse of minors by priests, demonstrated how significantly homosexual misconduct has contributed to the U.S. scandal. According to the study, 81% of 10,667 allegations of abuse reported between 1950 and 2002 involved post-pubescent males.
Of those cases, 52.8% involved teenage boys.
The report also indicated that the ratio of homosexual abuse allegations to heterosexual allegations rose sharply during the 1960s and 1970s, a period during which many American seminaries became more accommodating in admitting known homosexuals. While the ratio of homosexual to heterosexual abuse allegations was less than 2 to 1 during the 1950s, the ratio climbed to more than 3 to 1 in the 1960s and to more than 6 to 1 in the 1970s.
Messori, who co-wrote the 1994 best-seller Crossing the Threshold of Hope with Pope John Paul II, said that the situation is not unique to America.
Western society as a whole is guilty of hypocrisy, because it “beatifies” homosexuality and even pedophilia among celebrities but condemns it in the Church, he said.
Speaking of the Europeon context, Messori said lax policies at some Catholic seminaries were a central element of the problem.
In seminaries in the past, “if a student showed a gay tendency, he was told to leave,” Messori said. “But with this curse of political correctness, if a bishop tells a seminarian to leave, then all the politically correct shout ‘Discrimination!’ They shout, ‘The bishop is homophobic!’ They say he is marginalizing a category of people who should be protected.”
Said Messori, “The blame really lies with political correctness. It’s no longer possible to say ‘No’ to anyone — you have to accept all who apply and, naturally, the consequences are what we have today.”
(Register staff contributed to this story.)
Edward Pentin writes from Rome.