28 Mar 2010

Rugman in Rome: victims refuse to shake priest's hand

Jonathan Rugman meets Italian victims of child abuse in the church in Italy, and says the Pope’s reputation is on the line.

Just after 9pm on Friday night I found a myself  in a television studio in Rome as a member of the audience of an Italian television programme called “Brought to You by Rai Three”.

The show was broadcast live, with between 3 and 4 million Italians watching at home. I was briefly distracted when a television camera fell on the head of  an audience member, obliging the TV staff to bundle the victim off  the stage; but that was a surreal moment in an otherwise gripping show.

Three gentlemen from Verona were in the presenter’s hotseat, being interviewed about how they were abused by Italian priests when they were children. A Monsignor from the Verona diocese called Bruno Fasani  had been sent down to put the church’s point of view. During a break for advertisements, Mgr. Bruno leapt out of his chair to shake the victims’ hands. But they refused to take it.

When we went backstage afterwards, the President of Verona’s Deaf Association, a large moustachioed man called Giorgio, began shouting at the mild-mannered Bruno, who was later seen pacing up and down the pavement receiving phone calls – feedback no doubt from his bosses on how the church had fared on TV.

The deaf men retired to a nearby restaurant for dinner, and with almost no prompting from me their memories came spilling out across the table. Dario Laiti says he was sodomised from the age of 7. And Gianni Bisoli says even Verona’s late Bishop assaulted him when he was a boy.

“They would take me to the Bishop. I was in my pyjamas. It was completely dark. That was my first time,” Gianni said. “After three weeks they came and got me again….at midnight they would knock on my door and tell me that I needed to have sex with them.”

Gianni’s eyes watered, but the words kept flowing. It is a bitter irony of this child abuse scandal that the deaf, whose cries were never heard decades ago, cannot now stop talking.

I asked him about the TV show. “It was beautiful,” he said. “I was able to tell my story.”

“But I have lost my chance in life,” he told me later. “We had sex everywhere; upstairs, downstairs, in the bathrooms… but I’ve never had a beautiful woman close to me. I am completely ruined. How could this have happened to me, on top of my being deaf?”

Dario said that all they wanted was justice, and that the media spotlight was ensuring that they would get it at last.  “We spoke to officials. We never got any answers. Now it has all exploded in the press. All the cases should go to a normal public court, and not stay within the church.”

By chance the Monsignor from Verona was sitting awkwardly at the very next restaurant table, keeping his head down. Last year his Bishop said the deaf men had lied, and they were never interviewed as part of an official church investigation. Though after pressure from the Vatican, a new probe was promised last month.

“It is not true that the Pope has closed his eyes, that’s what journalists say,” Mgr Fasani told me. “The church wants to achieve clarity. It is being courageous now…things are happening now because someone has had the courage to come out with it.”

Shame it wasn’t the church itself clearing the air, I thought to myself. The Vatican now has a choice. Either to shoot the messenger and dismiss all these allegations as a media smear campaign against the Pope, as one Vatican newspaper did last week; or to take a more pro-active approach.

My sense is that the Vatican will never be able to draw a line under this affair unless the Pope himself actively encourages all those abused worldwide to come forward and talk. And there will be much more bad news to come, with each new revelation spawning the next. Let the anguish out, and then a reckoning can be made.

The Pope’s 6,000 word pastoral letter to the Church in Ireland last weekend was a long-winded start. But Catholic Bishops are clamouring for leadership, and there is only one man who can give it. There is talk of calling them to a summit in Rome, of new guidelines for church discipline based on guidelines already adopted in England and Wales. Perhaps a day in the church calendar to remember the abused. And just possibly, the Pope apologising in his homily this Holy Thursday, as the climax of Easter approaches, and as the eyes of all Catholics turn to Rome.

But who knows if any of this will happen. If the Vatican listens to his Bishops, it might. The Pope is an 82 year old theology professor who by his own admission is no good at administration. In  fact, it may have been his own bookish negligence rather than deliberate connivance which links him to a cover up of past scandals,  from Wisconsin to Munich.

Firefighting and crisis management are not his thing, either. But his church is damaged, his reputation is tarnished, and his leadership is on the line.