"Infamous Slander" via TV?
In a pre-emptive strike last Saturday, the newspaper of the Italian bishops launched a furious attack on the film, describing it as "fit only for the dustbin". A front page article in the daily Avvenire said the producers "should bow their heads and ask forgiveness".In recent months, clergy sex abuse has garnered heightened prominence on the Italian radar screen after the case of Florentine priest Lelio Cantini came to light. As the Cantini story worked its way up the food CEI-n earlier in the spring, the hierarchy was accused of inaction.
The head of the parliamentary committee that oversees RAI, Mario Landolfi of the formerly neo-fascist National Alliance, said yesterday that he had written to the director-general urging him not to allow screening of the documentary. To do so would be to turn the public network into an "execution squad ready to open fire on the church and the pope", he said.
The row has blown up at a time when the Catholic church in Italy is bringing its weight to bear in public life more than at any time since the demise of the country's Christian Democrat party. Last weekend, lay groups brought hundreds of thousands of demonstrators on to the streets of Rome to protest at a move by the centre-left government to give legal rights to unmarried couples, including same-sex couples.
Reports in several Italian newspapers said yesterday that the producers of a programme on RAI TV's second channel had agreed a price with the BBC for the purchase of "Sex Crimes and the Vatican", which was screened by Panorama in Britain last October. It caused a storm of controversy and prompted the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, to complain to the BBC's director-general.
The documentary said that in 2001, Pope Benedict, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, had issued an updated version of an order that was used to silence the victims of sexual abuse. The film was made by Colm O'Gorman, founder of a charity for abuse victims.
The Roman Catholic church accused Mr O'Gorman of misrepresenting the documentary evidence. It said that the Vatican's directive, first issued in 1962, was intended to avoid the misuse of information gathered in confessional. It imposed an oath of secrecy on the child victim, the priest and any witness.
The BBC documentary said this was meant to protect the priest's reputation during the investigation, but could "offer a blueprint for cover-up"....RAI wanted to give the film a wider audience by screening it on a popular current affairs and discussion programme. The daily La Repubblica said yesterday that the agreed price was within the programme's budget, but "at RAI, no one wants to take the responsibility of signing [the contract]".
Cantini, now in his eighties, became the parish priest of Regina della Pace in the mid-Seventies. A self-styled "charismatic", he was accompanied by a clairvoyant woman who had visions of Jesus and drew up lists of those parishioners whom she said were the "elect of God".-30-
Don Lelio ruled the parish with an iron hand, banishing dissidents from Mass and forbidding them absolution. But, in private, he showed a different side: in the church's presbytery he induced girls as young as 10 to have sex with him, explaining that this was a way of attaining "total unity with God".
A woman of 45, married with two children, said she had suppressed all memory of the abuse the priest inflicted on her until a couple of years ago. It started, she explained, when she was aged 10. "The Prior [as Cantini insisted on being called] would call me into his office or his bedroom, get me to undress and explain that, by doing what he asked, I would realise the most complete eucharistic communion," she said.
"He told me to think of the Madonna, who bore Jesus when she was only 12. He said I was the Beloved of the Song of Songs and that what happened between us was the same as what happened in the Garden of Eden." She said the relationship continued for 15 years, and that remembering it even now caused her vomiting attacks. "I was absolutely incapable," she said, "of making a free and aware choice."
Another woman, identified by the initials D A, now in her forties, said her sexual liaison with Fr Cantini "began when I was 17 and continued until I got married. He said I was in need of affection and that he would give it to me. Then he embraced me in the name of Jesus."
The victims kept their memories to themselves until chance reunions prompted them to share their stories and take them to the curia of Florence, the governing body of the church in the city, in January 2004.
They made written and oral submissions to the Archbishop of Florence and others - with the sole result that, in September 2005, Fr Cantini was transferred to another parish "for reasons of health".
Disgusted by the failure to take their complaints seriously, the victims wrote to Pope Benedict in March 2006 demanding more serious action. In response, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, then head of the Italian Bishops' Conference, informed them that Fr Cantini had left the diocese.
Further pressure led to disciplinary measures: Fr Cantini was banned from hearing confession or celebrating Mass for five years, "and every day for one year he must recite Psalm 51" - the one that begins, "Have mercy upon me, O God ... Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity." The victims say they regard the disciplinary measures "with astonishment and pain".