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CRIME

‘Now or never’: Victims of Italy’s predator priests push for abuse inquiry

Victims of paedophile priests on Tuesday unveiled a campaign for Italy to hold an independent investigation into abuse carried out on the Vatican's doorstep.

'Now or never': Victims of Italy's predator priests push for abuse inquiry
A file photo shows St Peter's square at the Vatican. Campaigners in Italy say the country must now investigate sex abuse and cover-ups within the church. AFP PHOTO / JOHANNES EISELE

As inquiries across the United States, Europe and Australia have exposed the scale of the sex abuse problem and cover-ups within the Church, campaigners say Italy can no longer avoid scrutiny.

“The government must act, must take advantage of the momentum created by impartial investigations elsewhere,” Francesco Zanardi, founder of Rete l’Abuso (Abuse Network), told AFP.

“If Italy doesn’t do it now, I fear it never will,” said Zanardi, who was abused by a priest as a young teen.

Nine groups are now forming a consortium aimed at putting pressure on the country to launch a probe like the ones seen recently in France and Germany.

Cristina Balestrini, who set up a support group for families after her son was abused by a priest, told AFP that the most important thing for survivors was “to make sure it never happens again”.

“There are many victims who commit suicide, and no one knows about it,” Balestrini said.

Rete L’Abuso has recorded more than 300 cases of priests accused or convicted of child sexual abuse in the past 15 years in Italy, out of a total of 50,000 priests across the country.

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Giada Vitale is just one example the group cites. She was a shy 13-year old organ player when her parish priest, Marino Genova, abused her in the vestry. She was molested for three years.

Vitale’s tormentor was convicted in 2020, but victim groups say such a conviction is rare because Italy lags behind other countries in tackling predators.

Precise figures on the scale of the problem are impossible to come by.

The Vatican’s top clerical abuse advisor told AFP this month it was time for the Catholic-majority country to hold its own reckoning.

The church is not as powerful as it once was in Italy, but it retains a huge influence and two-thirds of the population are believers according to a 2019 survey.

Pope Francis, who has toughened the punishments meted out to abusing priests under Vatican law, on Monday streamlined the Vatican office that processes abuse complaints, in an attempt to expedite cases.

But Zanardi of Rete l’Abuso said he “would have little faith” in an in-house investigation.

Balestrini, 56, is also distrustful of the church since “they acted as if we were the enemy, making us victims twice over” after her teenage son was abused in 2011.

The cleric in question, Mauro Galli, as initially quietly moved to another parish. He would later be convicted.

She hopes the consortium will be able to pressure the church to open its archives, because the scandal, she said, “is much bigger than you can imagine”.

Balestrini said unearthing the truth would not be easy for Italy, but the church would be wise to take an active role in cleaning itself up.

“At the moment, they are trying to keep a lid on it, but it’s better to choose to take the lid off yourself, than have it blown off.”

CRIME

Italy marks 30-year anniversary of anti-mafia judge murder

Thirty years ago, the Sicilian mafia killed judge Giovanni Falcone with a bomb so powerful it was registered by experts monitoring volcanic tremors from Etna on the other side of the island.

Italy marks 30-year anniversary of anti-mafia judge murder

The explosion, which ripped through a stretch of motorway near Palermo at 5.56 pm on May 23rd 1992, sent shockwaves across Italy, but also signalled the start of the mafia’s decline.

Anti-mafia prosecuting magistrate Falcone, his wife, and three members of his police escort were killed.

The mob used a skateboard to place a 500-kilogram (1,100-pound) charge of TNT and ammonium nitrate in a tunnel under the motorway which linked the airport to the centre of Palermo.

Falcone, driving a white Fiat Croma, was returning from Rome for the weekend.

At a look-out point on the hill above, a mobster nicknamed “The Pig” pressed the remote control button as the judge’s three-car convoy passed.

The blast ripped through the asphalt, shredding bodies and metal, and flinging the lead car several hundred metres.

The three policemen on board were killed instantly.

READ ALSO: Could body found on Italy’s Mount Etna help solve long-standing mafia mystery?

Falcone, whose wife was sitting beside him, had slowed seconds before the explosion and the car slammed into a concrete guard rail.

His chauffeur, who was sitting in the back, survived, as did the three agents in the convoy’s rear.

A “garden of memory” now stands on the site of the attack. Oil from olive trees that grow there is used by Sicilian churches for anointing children during baptisms and confirmations.

‘Mafia massacre’

Falcone posed a real threat to the Cosa Nostra, an organised crime group made famous by “The Godfather” trilogy and which boasted access to the highest levels of Italian power.

It was he who gathered evidence from the first mafia informants for a groundbreaking trial in which hundreds of mobsters were convicted in 1987.

And at the time of the attack, he headed the justice ministry’s criminal affairs department in Rome and was working on a package of anti-mafia laws.

His murder woke the nation up. The Repubblica daily attacked the “mafia massacre” in its headline the next day, with a photo of the famous moustachioed magistrate, while thousands of people in Palermo protested in the streets.

All eyes turned to fellow anti-mafia magistrate Paolo Borsellino, Falcone’s close friend and colleague, who gave an interview at the start of July saying the “extreme danger” he was in would not stop him doing his job.

On July 19th, just 57 days after his friend, Borsellino was also killed in a car bomb attack, along with five members of his escort. Only his driver survived.

Amid national outrage, the state threw everything it had at hunting down Cosa Nostra boss Salvatore (Toto) Riina, who was involved in dozens of murders during a reign of terror lasting over 20 years.

Riina was arrested on January 15th, 1993, in a car in Palermo.

The truth?

The murders of Falcone and Borsellino “in the long term turned out to be a very bad business for Cosa Nostra, whose management team was decapitated by arrests and informants’ confessions”, Vincenzo Ceruso, author of several books on the mafia, told AFP.

Dozens of people have been convicted for their roles in the assassinations.

But Roberto di Bella, now an anti-mafia judge at the Catania juvenile court in Sicily, said that while “the majority of the perpetrators have been tried and convicted”, there remained “a part that is still not clear”.

Survivors insist there are still bits of the puzzle missing and point to Falcone’s belief there could be “possible points of convergence between the leaders of Cosa Nostra and the shadowy centres of power”.

“We still don’t have the truth about who really ordered the murder of Giovanni Falcone, because I don’t believe that ignorant people like Toto Riina could have organised an attack as sophisticated as that in Capaci,” Angelo Corbo, one of the surviving bodyguards, said in a documentary.

He said he was not alone in believing there were “men in suits and ties” among the mobsters.

However, an investigation into possible “hidden orchestrators” of the Capaci attack was thrown out in 2013.

“There is no evidence of the existence of external backers. There is no doubt that these are mafia acts,” author Ceruso said.

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