Demand for sex abuse accountability in Italy grows as alleged victims demand bishops resign

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Victims of a Florence priest who was defrocked for sexually and psychologically abusing his young parishioners are now demanding that his bishops be held responsible for keeping his crimes quiet.

The victims' appeal is the latest sign that clerical abuse in Italy, long so taboo that it was rarely spoken of much less acted on, is increasingly getting public attention and forcing the Vatican to confront the problem in its own backyard.

In a letter to the pope obtained Wednesday, 17 victims of Lelio Cantini said that his bishops — one in particular — should be forced from office for having allegedly tried to keep his crimes quiet. They noted that bishops have resigned in countries like Ireland for similar inaction, but not in Italy.

"We ask for definitive clarification from all those responsible for our case, and that those who are to blame be definitively recognized as guilty and isolated and that justice — the daughter of truth — takes its course," they wrote in the letter.

The case of the 87-year-old Don Cantini is one of the most explosive to have rocked the Italian Catholic Church. Victims who had stayed quiet for some 30 years emerged in 2004 to accuse him of creating a sect-like atmosphere in his Queen of Peace parish on the outskirts of Florence, where he allegedly subjected youngsters to sexual and psychological abuse.

Initially, Florence's then-archbishop, Cardinal Ennio Antonelli, moved Cantini to another parish for "health" reasons.

But three years after the victims first went to the auxiliary bishop with complaints, Antonelli announced in 2007 that Cantini had been found guilty in a canonical trial of "sexual abuse against some girls from 1973-1987, false mysticism and control and domination of consciences," according to a diocesan statement.

No criminal charges were brought because the statute of limitations had expired.

As his punishment, Cantini was forbidden from celebrating Mass in public and hearing confessions for five years, and was forced to recite a lengthy psalm every day and make a charitable offering, according to Antonelli's statement.

Amid outrage over the perceived levity of the punishment, the pope laicized Cantini a year later.

The case made headlines in Italy in 2007, when Cantini's victims appeared on state-run RAI television to denounce the priest and detail the abuse they suffered at his hands.

While the victims are pleased that Cantini has been defrocked, they now want others responsible for allegedly covering up his crimes to pay. In particular, they have accused the diocese' vicar general, Monsignor Claudio Maniago, of having tried to keep their claims quiet. They say the current Florence archbishop, Monsignor Giuseppe Betori, had never sought them out.

"Since 2004, when a few of us painfully found the courage to accuse him (Cantini), our church has tried to silence us through intimidation and threats, through a constant effort of delegitimization and reassurances, inviting us to keep quiet and worse, asking us to forget a painful past and instead go forward in faith," the victims wrote in the letter.

"Never in these two years has (Betori) felt the need to meet us, to know our faces and our stories, to listen to us and welcome our thirst for justice."

In response, the diocese spokesman issued a statement to the ANSA news agency saying none of the victims had ever sought a meeting with Betori and that all they had to do was make an appointment with his secretary.

"The bishop is ready to meet with them to join them in prayer," said the statement, which the spokesman Enrico Viviano confirmed Wednesday. "All the rest only brings about distortions for other ends of a painful episode for them as well as the Florentine church."

One of the signatories of the Cantini letter, Mariangela Accordi, said it was not for the victims to search out their pastor. "It's the pastor who looks after his sheep, to comfort them; it's certainly not for us to call on him."

The Associated Press generally doesn't identify victims of sexual abuse. Accordi agreed to be identified because she hopes that in speaking out about the abuse she suffered other victims will feel empowered to denounce their abusers as well.

"It was a long road to be able to speak about this thing that I didn't even want to tell myself," she said in a phone interview Wednesday. "But in the end, it's the most beautiful thing to be liberated with words. It's priceless."

To date, no Italian bishop is known to have resigned for having shielded a pedophile priest, but pressure is growing for accountability.

In Verona, the bishop has been told by the Vatican to conduct a more thorough investigation into allegations that priests raped and molested dozens of deaf boys at a church-run institute.

And later this month, a Rome bishop is expected to take the stand in a criminal trial of one of his priests accused of molesting seven young boys. The bishop admitted in a prosecutors' interrogation that he knew of rumors of abuse against the priest two years before he was arrested but didn't report it to authorities.