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In a first, Vatican puts priests on trial in sex-abuse case within its walls

St. Peter's Square in Vatican City
St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City.
(Gregorio Borgia / Associated Press)

Two priests are going on trial before the Vatican’s criminal tribunal this week, one accused of sexually abusing an altar boy who served at papal Masses and the other accused of covering it up.

The trial, confirmed Monday by the Holy See’s press office, marks the first known time that the Vatican has criminally prosecuted a case of sexual abuse that allegedly occurred within its walls.

The proceedings, which begin Thursday, were forced on the Holy See after victims and a whistleblower went public in 2017. Their stories undermined Pope Francis’ pledges of “zero tolerance” for abuse because the alleged crimes occurred in his own backyard and had gone unpunished for years.

The case concerns the closed world of the St. Pius X youth seminary, a palazzo inside the Vatican walls just across the street from where Francis lives. The seminary serves as a residence for about a dozen boys, aged 12 to 18, who serve as altar boys at papal Masses in St. Peter’s Basilica.

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A onetime seminarian, the Rev. Gabriele Martinelli, is accused of molesting a younger seminarian when Martinelli himself was a senior altar boy at St. Pius X. The Rev. Enrico Radice, the rector of the seminary at the time, is accused of aiding and abetting the crime.

Neither Martinelli nor Radice has responded publicly to the accusations. The order that runs the seminary, the Opera Don Folchi, has said the allegations were “mud” and “calumny,” though the diocese of Como, where both men are now priests, has removed them from ministry with minors pending an outcome of the case.

The Vatican says the coronavirus has hit the Swiss Guards, with four guards testing positive for the coronavirus and showing symptoms of COVID-19.

The scandal is particularly grave because the allegations of abuse were known since at least 2012 but were covered up for years by the Vatican and the Como diocese until they were exposed by two Italian journalists, Gaetano Pecoraro and Gianluigi Nuzzi, in 2017.

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The pair relied on the eyewitness testimony of the victim’s roommate, Kamil Jarzembowski, who was kicked out of the seminary after first reporting the abuse privately to church authorities in 2012.

Jarzembowski has said he saw his roommate repeatedly molested by Martinelli at night when Martinelli would enter their dorm room. He has said the molestation began when both Martinelli and the victim were minors and continued after Martinelli turned 18.

Jarzembowski has been called as a witness for the prosecution.

Cardinal George Pell of Australia, who was initially convicted but then acquitted of sexually abusing two choirboys, is returning to the Vatican.

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“I hope it’s a just trial, in front of impartial judges,” he told the Associated Press. “I want to go into the tribunal and look them in the eye.”

Usually, if it investigates sexual abuse at all, the Roman Catholic Church prosecutes accused priests according to canon law, the church’s in-house legal system, which can impose a maximum penalty of defrocking.

In this case, because the alleged crimes occurred within the confines of Vatican City, the city-state’s criminal prosecutors also have jurisdiction and decided to charge the two priests and bring the case to trial.

The first hearing Thursday is expected to be largely technical in nature. The Vatican is allowing two pool reporters to attend, limiting the number because of COVID-19 restrictions.

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The diocese of Como, which ordained Martinelli after initially clearing him of the allegations, now insists that it restricted his ministry after “new elements” emerged in 2017. The diocese says it was committed to finding the truth, “even recognizing possible delays or omissions committed in the past.”

A series of bishops, including Cardinal Angelo Comastri, the archpriest of St. Peter’s Basilica, said they investigated the allegations.

The case is emblematic of the inherent conflicts of interest in the canon law system. Bishops are tasked with investigating allegations of abuse, but they also invest time and money in training the accused priests and need them to fill Mass schedules and perform pastoral work.


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