Abuse Victims: Italian Law Helps Bishops Dodge Investigation

ROME — U.S. and Italian advocates for victims of pedophile priests are pressing for Italy to overhaul legislation that allows bishops to dodge accountability for predator clergy in the predominantly Roman Catholic country where the church wields considerable political influence.

A U.S. state legislator joined an Italian lawmaker and American and Italian victims of pedophile clergy at the Italian Parliament on Thursday to put a spotlight on what they described as significant gaps in how the Italian justice system handles the problem.

Francesco Zanardi, who heads an Italian survivors’ advocacy group, said Italy must revise its 1929 Lateran Treaty with the Holy See. He noted that under that agreement, bishops can refuse to respond to magistrates investigating their alleged roles in hiding pedophile crimes by priests.

Thus, as long as they personally are not being investigated for abuse, bishops “have the right to refuse to answer questions from the judiciary,” Zanardi told a news conference in the Chamber of Deputies, Parliament’s lower house.

The same treaty, he noted, also requires magistrates to inform church hierarchy they have started investigations of priests, effectively giving bishops more time to possibly discourage witnesses or victims from coming forward.

Italian law doesn’t require bishops to denounce cases of abuse by clergy, Zanardi said.

“There is a legislative vacuum,” he said.

The Catholic church holds a privileged place in Italian society and wields significant influence in politics. Parishes in small towns and big cities alike run after-school and weekend recreation programs for youngsters, since public schools don’t offer them. That gives priests easy access to minors.

A U.S. advocate for accountability for pedophile priests noted that the American Catholic church was forced to “be more transparent” after victims came forward as adults when several states opened windows on statutes of limitations. That nudged U.S. bishops to adopt a “zero tolerance” policy toward abusive priests.

But the Italian church still allows itself to be guided by canon law, which “gives the priest a second chance” and “leaves it to the bishop’s discretion” on whether a priest should be punished or removed from children, said Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of BishopAccountability.org.