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Italian bishop denies sexual abuse cover-up

May 21, 2010

by Giulia Segreti and Guy Dinmore in Rome, may 21, 2010

For the first time in Italy a Catholic bishop has appeared as a witness in the trial of a priest accused of paedophilia whose case has raised further questions over Pope Benedict’s efforts to redress the Church’s handling of abuse by clerics and cover-ups by their superiors.

Speaking in a packed court room in the shadow of the Vatican, Gino Reali, bishop of Santa Rufina, was questioned on Thursday for almost two hours in the case of Father Ruggero Conti, a priest with powerful political and clerical connections who is accused of sexually abusing seven boys in his Rome parish of Selva Candida.

One of the alleged victims, who has recently turned 18, is expected to testify in the next hearing, scheduled for mid June. Father Conti has denied all accusations.

Shortly before the hearing began under tight security, the president of the court received a bullet in an anonymous letter threatening to blow up the court if the bishop was brought to testify.

Bishop Reali said he did not inform the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of suspicions surrounding Father Conti “because I didn’t consider the elements I had gathered sufficient”.

“I did not take any further measures because I tried to keep to the facts and not the rumours,” he said.

The Vatican’s internal guidelines, made public last month, on how cases of alleged paedophile priests should be handled say local bishops should refer allegations bearing a “semblance of truth” to the Congregation.

The bishop said he first knew of the alleged “wrong behaviours” in September 2006 from Father Conti himself, who told him that rumours were being spread. The bishop said he had tried to get to the truth by talking to over 20 people close to the parish, including two who claimed to have been abused.

At the end of the hearing a lawyer asked prosecutors to bring charges against the bishop on the grounds that he had done nothing to prevent further abuse taking place.

The small and airless court was full of families and youngsters in support of Father Conti, standing at the back during the seven-hour hearing. Boys and girls were in tears when details emerged during questioning.

“Our presence and our support is to let him know that we are here, to make him feel our love and affection,” said one 20-year-old man.

Father Conti was arrested in 2008 and is under house arrest after some time spent in prison. The most recent of his alleged crimes were committed shortly before his detention.

“Father Ruggero is just a scapegoat. There is a real witch hunt out there and this trial has now turned into a media trial…all of this happened in the wrong moment,” said a woman from a previous parish of the priest.

Sexual abuse by priests has been virtually a taboo topic in Italy but a deluge of accounts surfacing across Europe in recent months has given heart to associations representing victims in Italy and forced Church leaders to address the issue in public.

Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, head of the Italian bishops’ conference, last month spoke of the failure of those in the Church who should have “intervened in a timely manner.”

“Proven cases of mismanagement, underestimation of the facts, if not outright cover-up, will have to be rigorously prosecuted within and outside the Church and, as has already happened in some cases, will have to result in the removal and dismissal of the people involved,” he said in a newspaper interview.

Bishop Reali also said he considered Father Claudio Brichetto, who was a deputy to Father Conti and went to police with accusations of child abuse, an untrustworthy person and had removed him from his post as he had already created conflicts in his previous parishes. The bishop denied that he had told one of the alleged victims that he should not go to the police and let the church handle the matter internally.

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