VERONA, Italy - It happened night after night, the deaf man said, sometimes in the priest's bedroom, sometimes in the bathroom, even in the confessional.
When he was a young boy at a Catholic-run institute for the deaf, Alessandro Vantini said, priests sodomized him so relentlessly he came to feel "as if I were dead." This year, he and dozens of other former students did something highly unusual for Italy: They went public with claims they were forced to perform sex acts with priests.
For decades, a culture of silence has surrounded priest abuse in Italy, where surveys show the church is considered one of the country's most respected institutions. Now, in the Vatican's backyard, a movement to air and root out abusive priests is slowly and fitfully taking hold.
A yearlong Associated Press tally has documented 73 cases with allegations of sexual abuse by priests against minors over the past decade in Italy, with more than 235 victims. The tally was compiled from local media reports, linked to by Web sites of victims groups and blogs. Almost all the cases have come out in the seven years since the scandal about Roman Catholic priest abuse broke in the United States.
The numbers in Italy are still a mere trickle compared to the hundreds of cases in the court systems of the United States and Ireland. And according to the AP tally, the Italian church has so far had to pay only a few hundred thousand euros (dollars) in civil damages to the victims, compared to $2.6 billion in abuse-related costs for the American diocese or $1.5 billion due to victims in Ireland.
However, the numbers still stand out in a country where reports of clerical sex abuse were virtually unknown a decade ago. They point to an increasing willingness among the Italian public and — slowly — within the Vatican itself to look squarely at a tragedy where the reported cases may only just be the tip of the iceberg. The Italian church will not release the numbers of cases reported or of court settlements.
The implications of priest abuse loom large in Italy: with its 50,850 priests in a nation of 60 million, Italy counts more priests than all of South America or Africa. In the United States — where the Vatican counts 44,700 priests in a nation of 300 million — more than 4,000 Catholic clergy have been accused of molesting minors since 1950.
The Italian cases follow much the same pattern as the U.S. and Irish scandals: Italian prelates often preyed on poor, physically or mentally disabled, or drug-addicted youths entrusted to their care. The deaf students' speech impairments, for example, made the priests' admonition "never to tell" all the more easy to enforce.
In this predominantly Roman Catholic country, the church enjoys such an exalted status that the pope's pronouncements frequently top the evening news, without any critical commentary. Even those with anti-clerical views acknowledge the important role the church plays in education, social services and caring for the poor.
‘It's a taboo’
As a result, few dare to criticize it, including the mainstream independent and state-run media. In addition, there's a certain prudishness in small-town Italy, where one just doesn't speak about sex, much less sex between a priest and a child.
"It's a taboo on top of a taboo," said Jacqueline Monica Magi, who prosecuted several pedophilia cases in Italy before becoming a judge. "This is the provincialism of Italy."
Breaking the conspiracy of silence, 67 former students from Verona's Antonio Provolo institute for the deaf signed a statement alleging that sexual abuse, pedophilia and corporal punishment occurred at the school from the 1950s to the 1980s at the hands of priests and brothers of the Congregation for the Company of Mary.
While not all acknowledged being victims themselves, 14 of the 67 wrote sworn statements and videotaped testimony, detailing the abuse they say they suffered, some for years, at the school's two campuses in Verona, the city of Romeo and Juliet. They named 24 priests, lay religious men and religious brothers.
Vantini said he, too, was silent for years.
"How could I tell my papa that a priest had sex with me?" Vantini, 59, told the AP one afternoon, recounting through a sign-language interpreter the abuse he said he endured. "You couldn't tell your parents because the priests would beat you."
Italy grapples with priest sex abuse - Europe- msnbc.com