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Church in Crisis

Italian church rocked by its own scandals

While in some circles the sex abuse crisis has been styled an “American problem,” that perception is under strong challenge here as the Italian Catholic church confronts the issue on multiple fronts.

In Sicily, the case of Fr. Margarito Reyes Marchena, a Honduran immigrant accused of sexually abusing four minor Italian children, has generated criticism of local church officials who defended him.

“The true victim is this 59-year-old priest,” said Fr. Vincenzo Noto, vicar general of the diocese of Monreale, where Reyes served, when the story first broke in late March. The diocese collected signatures on Reyes’ behalf and sent them to Italian prosecutors.

Reyes is currently under house arrest.

The reaction angered Fr. Domenico Gallizzi, a Sicilian priest. “It’s above all with the children that the ecclesial community should be concerned,” Gallizzi said. The Roman daily La Repubblica has accused the Italian hierarchy of a “lack of transparency” in handling the case.

Meanwhile, the diocese of Rome is also under fire from one of its own priests, 42-year-old Fr. Stefano Federici, who is fighting off attempts by Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the pope’s vicar for Rome, to deprive him of a stipend and living quarters.

The crackdown against Federici was motivated in part by his pastoral care for homosexuals and transvestites, which Ruini charged in a Nov. 27, 2000, decree, is inconsistent with church teaching.

The heart of the complaint, however, is that Federici announced a homosexual orientation on national television in an interview in July 2000, when he revealed that he had been the victim of long-running sexual abuse in his family, and had later been advised to keep silent by church authorities.

The abuse, Federici said, was not at the hands of a priest.

Federici told NCR May 14 that he later had a meeting with Ruini and his chancellor, in which he rejected the charge that he had “come out” as a homosexual by talking about his experience. He said that in the TV interview, he had revealed only that he had been the object of a relative’s same-sex desire, not that he himself had a same-sex orientation.

The chancellor, according to Federici, responded: “But for us, dear Fr. Stefano, this makes no difference.”

“My cardinal is a criminal,” Federici told NCR. “He said that I, the abused party, speaking of the abuse I suffered, offended the sacredness of my priesthood and offended the sensibility of the people of God. He claims to say these things in the name of the Catholic church. But it’s not true, he speaks not in the name of the church, but for the power of the Catholic church.”

Ruini’s office did not respond to NCR requests for comment.

An assembly of the Italian bishops’ conference opened in Rome May 20, and Ruini made reference to the sex abuse crisis in his opening remarks. He called for greater vigilance in screening seminary candidates and rejected a link between celibacy and sexual dysfunction.

“Absolute clarity is needed, for love and respect of minors and their families, who must be able to have serene confidence in the men of the church, and even more so because our concrete life should be consistent with our vocation as Christians and priests,” Ruini said.

“From the admission of candidates to the priesthood in seminaries, we must be vigilant in discernment and clear and explicit in recalling to all the goal toward which they are moving.”

Ruini’s second point concerned celibacy. “The suspicion of a connection between this type of abuse and the choice of celibacy must be exploded,” he said, “and not merely because such a connection finds no support in the data.

“Celibacy, chosen and lived not out of disdain for sexuality but to practice a different form of self-giving, becomes in a society like ours, whose quasi-obsession with sexuality has been defined as ‘neo-pagan,’ a sign of personal liberty and a defense of a more free relationship with sexuality itself. It’s a serene and authentically human relationship, for the benefit of every person and not just those who have chosen celibacy.”

-- John L. Allen Jr.

National Catholic Reporter, May 31, 2002