ROME – Italy's top cardinal in a message read aloud Sunday at Mass informed shocked faithful in a Genoa suburb that their longtime pastor has been jailed for investigation of pedophilia and giving drugs to a minor.
Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, archbishop of Genoa, also heads Italy's bishops conference. He unexpectedly had shown up at Saturday evening Mass in the church to express his "shame." On Sunday, his message denouncing the alleged "immoral behavior" of the Rev. Riccardo Seppia was read out to parishioners in Holy Spirit church in Sestri Ponente.
The message reiterated the cardinal's stern rebuke of the 51-year-old Seppia which Bagnasco delivered personally a day earlier.
"While we renew our full trust in justice and its task of ferreting out the truth of the affair, I have come here, dear friends, to share your shock and heartache, together with shame and total disapproval if the grave accusations end up being confirmed," Bagnasco said.
Italian news reports said the priest, who had served as Holy Spirit's pastor for 14 years, was arrested Friday night for allegedly abusing a 16-year-old boy and giving him cocaine.
Bagnasco told parishioners Seppia was suspended from all ministry duties, including celebrating the sacraments.
Italian news reports said Seppia's lawyer was studying what defense strategy to adopt for the priest, who was scheduled to be interrogated by magistrates in jail Monday. The lawyer could not immediately be reached for comment.
Clergy sex abuse scandals have only recently emerged in heavily Catholic Italy after years of silence. The cardinal's swift, hands-on reaction to the arrest was a sharp departure from a deep-rooted tendency of Italian churchmen to defend their ranks in a country where the Vatican is politically influential and citizens often deferential to clergy.
Many Italians depend on their local parishes to provide social services that their government generally lags behind in, especially activities for children, like after-school sports programs and summer camps.
While clergy sex abuse scandals exploded in the U.S., much of Western Europe and elsewhere in the past two decades, the church in Italy had appeared to be largely unscathed. But the last few years have seen several criminal cases brought against Italian priests, and the pace of the crackdown could be quickening.
This spring, a court in Florence sentenced a former priest to 4 1/2 years in prison for alleged sexual violence against a girl. A few weeks earlier, a Rome court had convicted a former pastor in the Italian capital of sexually abusing seven children who attended parish summer camp and after-school programs and sentenced him to more than 15 years in prison.
The Vatican has been struggling to convince its worldwide flock that is serious about swiftly rooting out pedophile priests from the ministry and protecting minors from them. On Monday, it will issue a document designed to help bishops around the world craft guidelines to deal with clerical sex abuse cases.
(This version corrects day of arrest to Friday from Saturday.)