Vatican City, Feb 25, 2021 / 08:00 am (CNA).- Witnesses at the fifth hearing in a trial for alleged abuse and cover-up at a Vatican youth seminary testified on Wednesday to an unhealthy culture of ridicule and abuse of power.

The witnesses also alleged that reports of sexual abuse were ignored or dismissed by authority figures, including the cardinal in charge of St. Peter’s Basilica. 

Three former students at the Pius X pre-seminary testified before the city state’s court on Feb. 24 that the environment was “unhealthy,” indicating that taunts of a sexual nature were common and that they had witnessed one of the accused grope the genitals of other students.

The three witnesses also alleged that reports of abuse were known by Cardinal Angelo Comastri, the archpriest of St. Peter’s Basilica, who dismissed them as “false and calumny.” It was reported in the course of the hearing that Comastri may have blocked the removal of the pre-seminary’s then rector, one of the defendants.

Located inside Vatican City State, the Pius X pre-seminary is a residence for about a dozen boys aged 12 to 18 who serve at papal Masses and other liturgies in St. Peter’s Basilica and are considering the priesthood.

The pre-seminary is run by a religious group, the Opera Don Folci, which is overseen by the Diocese of Como in northern Italy. 

The defendants in the trial are 28-year-old Fr. Gabriele Martinelli, a former student at the pre-seminary, and 72-year-old Fr. Enrico Radice, the seminary’s former rector.

Martinelli has been charged with using violence and his position of authority to commit sexual abuse against a younger student. Radice has been charged with impeding investigations into the abuse allegations against Martinelli.

Martinelli has defended his innocence of the charges, calling the accusations against him “unfounded” and intended to “strike” at the pre-seminary.

Radice has maintained that he was never told about abuse by Martinelli by anyone, and has accused the alleged victim and another alleged witness of making up the story for “economic interests.”

Martinelli, who was not a cleric at the time of the alleged abuse, was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Como in 2017.

The alleged victim, identified as L.G., was born in 1993 and was 13 at the time the alleged abuse began, turning 18 about a year before it ended.

In testimony on Feb. 24, witnesses said that Martinelli was “protected” by the ex-rector and given roles of responsibility, bypassing even two other seminary faculty who were priests.

“The rector had allowed Martinelli to feel he was already a priest from the beginning,” according to one witness, who left the pre-seminary after a month, due to what he called “an exhausting experience” because of an environment of gossip and taunts about one’s physical appearance or “effeminate behaviors.”

The three witnesses said that they did not have direct knowledge of sexual abuse against L.G. as described in the charges, but testified that they had seen Martinelli engage in inappropriate behaviors such as sexual advances and momentary genital touching of boys other than the alleged victim L.G.

The Pius X pre-seminary was described by the former students as an environment with “psychological pressures,” where it was common to hear “homosexual jokes” and other lewd comments. Martinelli was described as having a “dominant role, very strong,” and a “homosexual demeanor.”

L.G. was described by one witness as “extremely credible,” but a bit delicate because of a difficult family situation.

One witness testified that Martinelli and L.G. seemed to hate each other and never speak, but that Martinelli also gave L.G. and another student special favors, positing that Martinelli was motivated by fear of what they could reveal about him. This other former student was also scheduled to testify on Feb. 24 but did not present himself at the hearing.

One witness recalled having seen Martinelli touch the genitals of another student, “like an implicit request for sexual intercourse.” This student refused the advance and afterward “fell out of favor” with Martinelli. He became “marginalized” and was psychologically pressured to leave the pre-seminary, which he eventually did.

This alleged victim was also scheduled to testify in the Feb. 24 hearing, but had been excused by the court for an unidentified reason.

All three witnesses spoke about knowledge on the part of superiors about inappropriate behaviors. One said that he was “very sure” that the seminary authorities were informed of the abuse accusations, that “Radice knew but did nothing,” and that attempts at making complaints to him fell on deaf ears.

One witness also claimed to have sent an anonymous letter to Pope Francis two years after leaving the pre-seminary about what he had seen there and stated that L.G. had once asked him to deliver a letter to the pope for him, which he did not do because he “didn’t feel like it and there was no opportunity.”

Fr. Pierre Paul, a priest and the director of the Capella Giulia, a choir of St. Peter’s Basilica, testified on Feb. 24, saying that L.G. had confided in him.

“He never explicitly told me what was wrong but it was understood that they were problems of the affective-sexual sphere,” Paul said.

Paul made a report to the Commission for the Protection of Minors, part of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, in 2017. He said Wednesday that he had wanted to make a report earlier but had been stopped by L.G.

Thursday morning, the court of the Vatican City State’s again convened for the questioning of the Bishop Oscar Cantoni of Como, who was installed in the diocese in 2016 and ordained Martinelli a priest in 2017.

Bishop Diego Coletti, the bishop emeritus of Como who led the diocese from 2006 to 2016, presented a medical note to be excused from questioning and was not present.

Cantoni testified on Feb. 25 that before ordaining Martinelli to the priesthood, he had spoken with the rector of the Pius X pre-seminary and the rector of the Pontifical French Seminary in Rome, which Martinelli attended for his priestly studies.

Both, according to Cantoni, had told him that Martinelli “had made a positive path” and was ready for ordination.

“All the people I had asked for an opinion on Martinelli, who had had anything to do with him after the [transitional] diaconate,” said there had been nothing wrong in his behavior, Cantoni said.

Cantoni admitted to there having been, between September 2006 and June 2012, signals from priests speaking about “sexually inappropriate conduct” on Martinelli’s part. But he said these accusations dated back to before Martinelli was a cleric and therefore were outside the existing norms for sexual abuse of a minor by clergy.

“Since he has been in Como, first as a deacon and then as a priest, there has not been a report. It was a transitory homosexual tendency linked to adolescence,” the bishop said.

Bishop Cantoni also added that since becoming a priest, no one has ever issued a complaint to him about Martinelli.

It was revealed in the course of the hearing that there had been some question about whose jurisdiction the Pius X pre-seminary fell under, since it is located on Vatican property, but managed by the Opera Don Folci, which is located in the Diocese of Como.

Cantoni said he asked for clarification on this question from Cardinal Comastri, who said he was not responsible as archpriest of St. Peter’s Basilica and vicar general for the Vatican City State.

The bishop said that since “we lived in ambiguity,” he asked Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, who said that “there was no pact between the Vatican and Como.”

“I was able to clarify that the ultimate responsibility lies with the Diocese of Como,” Cantoni said.

The Diocese of Como is currently investigating the Opera Don Folci, focusing primarily on economic and pedagogical matters. The investigation has been suspended during the COVID-19 pandemic.

L.G., the alleged victim, will take the witness stand at the next hearing, scheduled for March 17. On March 18, the court will inspect the pre-seminary. Another hearing date has been set for April 14.

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