Cardinal Matteo Zuppi can break open the world’s most powerful pedo ring at the heart of the Catholic Church

ROME – If there’s one open secret in the Eternal City, it’s that allegations of sex abuse by clerics in Italy have always been swept into the shadows of the Vatican.

The last three popes have had mixed reviews for their handling of the global scandal. When the worst abuse came to light, Pope John Paul II was too frail and powerless to do anything about it. His successor Pope Benedict XVI. was demonstrably oblivious to the problems coming from the universal church and was implicated in the cover-up in Germany. Pope Francis has done more than either of his predecessors to reconcile the pain. But none of these leaders of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics have done enough or what the victims want, which is for spiritual child molesters to be treated like secular ones: for them to go straight to jail.

The idea that rampant abuse, exposed in the United States, Germany, Ireland and elsewhere, has also been going on under the popes’ noses in Italy for decades was something previous popes have successfully kept under wraps. But a mounting drumbeat from Italian sex abuse victims has sent a shockwave that has finally reached the Holy See. And the new leader of Italy’s Bishops’ Conference, Cardinal Matteo Maria Zuppi, has just promised to lay bare Italy’s hitherto hidden history of sex abuse by suggesting that the seat of the Roman Catholic Church is directly involved in the cover-up of crimes in Italy is his host country. He says he will investigate what has been no-go territory, guarded by church insiders who were in some ways as powerful, influential and dangerous as the mafia.

If Zuppi delivers on his laundry list of promises — including helping scientists research grievances that may have been buried in Vatican archives, looking into ignored police reports, and hearing the hitherto suppressed allegations of Italian victims — the Vatican will effectively patrolling its own backyard for the first time since Benito Mussolini signed into law his special status as a city-state. Any investigation into a regional Catholic church ends up on the Pope’s desk in Vatican City. And Zuppi has promised not to hold back. “No cover-up, no resistance from the bishops. We will take the blows we have to endure and also our responsibilities,” said Zuppi, accepting the papal appointment. “We owe it to the victims; her pain is the priority. And we owe it to Holy Mother Church.”

Zuppi said the Vatican will release its analysis of all complaints of clergy sex abuse in Italy on November 18 – something that has never been attempted given the Catholic Church’s mafia-like influence across the country. Every city in Italy has a patron saint, holidays are primarily holy days, and priests play god in almost every single parish. Survivors say reports of abuse have always been erased and “remedied” by taking the predator elsewhere or, as is often the case, straight to Vatican City for a little penance.

Francesco Zanardi, a vocal survivor from the northern Italian city of Savona, began publishing reports of abuse in a newsletter widely sent out by his support group Rete L’Abuso, or Abuse Network. His social media has gone viral with his hashtag #ItalyChurchToo, which in its one-year existence has pulled back the curtain on grotesque reports from influential church members in this hyper-religious country. He hopes that Zuppi’s investigations really deliver what they promise and that the usual “meddling” of the Italian Catholic hierarchy in the Italian judicial system does not make this impossible. He told The Daily Beast that the mere fact that crucifixes are by law hung in all Italian courtrooms has more to do with omerta than faith. He says they are there as “a threat and a reminder that the Church is more powerful than even God.”

Zuppi’s predecessor, Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, was pressured by many in secular society to heed the calls of Zanardi’s growing influence to launch a Pennsylvania-scale internal investigation in 2018, involving more than 300 robber priests and robbers in that state alone 1,000 victims were found.

When Zuppi made the announcement at his swearing-in ceremony over the weekend, Italy’s 223 bishops were told they would play a very large role in self-regulation, which was not a particular strength of any Catholic hierarchy. Italy currently has no “listening centers” or secure lines to call to report abuse in 30 percent of the country, which is 90 percent Catholic.

The first phase of the report will focus on the years between 2000 and 2021, a time when robber priests in other countries were finally being held in check by increased involvement of the secular justice system. But in Italy, those years could prove horrifying, with no one investigating reports. It remains to be seen how bad the abuse allegations from the previous decades are.

Zuppi said the “Italian way” would be different from countries that have recently exposed their sex abuse scandals, including Germany, France and Spain. In Italy, he said the plan was not just “lip service” or a “false admission” to the problem. “The investigation will be a serious, real thing that leaves no room for controversy,” he said, nodding to the French report, which is still being debated in the French Catholic hierarchy. “We don’t want to argue, we don’t want to distract. The report does not serve as a sedative, but to take the matter seriously.”

The reason Zuppi said he would focus on the last 21 years first is because it’s more relevant. “In terms of the past 20 years, it has to do with us, it affects us directly. It feels a lot more serious to us, it hurts a lot more,” he said. “1945 was 80 years ago. I think it’s difficult to judge something from 80 years ago by today’s criteria that was judged by different criteria back then.”

Zanardi, who says he knows of 1,600 cases from before 2000, says instead the deadline was discriminatory and could make the problem seem smaller than it is. Zuppi asked Zanardi for a meeting. “We would be very happy to meet you,” he told Zanardi, who attended his first press conference, asking the new cardinal about reparations. “If you have a case, tell us. I don’t know if you’ve already done this, I’m just speaking for myself… Then there’s the state, you go to the police. Certainly it will be very useful to make a report.”

For years these accusations were buried to protect the Vatican and its popes from embarrassment. The task of unraveling such a deep web of dark mysteries is daunting. Cardinal Matteo Zuppi can break open the world’s most powerful pedo ring at the heart of the Catholic Church


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