Italy's Catholic Church at crossroads over sexual abuse investigation

The worldwide sexual abuse crisis has done the Roman Catholic Church massive damage to its credibility and cost hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements.

 General view of Santa Cristina church is pictured after the government decree to close cinemas, schools and urge people to work from home and not stand closer than one metre to each other, in Turin, Italy, March 5, 2020 (photo credit: REUTERS/MASSIMO PINCA)
General view of Santa Cristina church is pictured after the government decree to close cinemas, schools and urge people to work from home and not stand closer than one metre to each other, in Turin, Italy, March 5, 2020
(photo credit: REUTERS/MASSIMO PINCA)

Francesco Zanardi has spent the past 12 years documenting sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests in Italy, filling a vacuum he says is caused by the refusal of the country's Church thus far to launch a major investigation.

When Italian bishops meet next week to elect a new president, Zanardi is hoping to see the start of a long-overdue reckoning for the Church, whose leaders will discuss whether to commission an independent investigation of abuse similar to those carried out in France and Germany.

From his apartment in the center of Savona in northern Italy, Zanardi, 51, runs Rete l'Abuso (The Abuse Network), which has one of the largest digital archives on clerical sexual abuse in the country.

He spends much of his time seeking court documents, tracking the whereabouts of suspected abusers, talking to lawyers who help him with cases, and vetting tips from victims.

"The common thread I have found among victims is that they don't want it to happen to others because only a victim knows what it does to you inside, even if on the outside they are smiling and look normal," Zanardi said.

 Pedro Salinas, Francois Devaux, Francesco Zanardi and Peter Iseley, survivors of sexual abuse, talk to reporters outside the Vatican in Rome, Italy February 20, 2019 (credit: REUTERS/REMO CASILLI) Pedro Salinas, Francois Devaux, Francesco Zanardi and Peter Iseley, survivors of sexual abuse, talk to reporters outside the Vatican in Rome, Italy February 20, 2019 (credit: REUTERS/REMO CASILLI)

In February, Zanardi and eight other groups formed a consortium called "Beyond the Great Silence" and launched the hashtag #ItalyChurchToo to put pressure on Italy's Church to agree to an impartial investigation.

The choice of its next president for a five-year term is crucial because bishops are divided over whether an eventual full-scale investigation should be internal, using existing resources such as diocesan anti-abuse committees, or by an outside group, potentially comprising academics, lawyers and abuse experts.

They are also divided over whether it should be confined to the recent past or go back decades.

A spokesman for the Italian bishops' conference said they would discuss how to proceed when they meet.

The worldwide sexual abuse crisis has done the Roman Catholic Church massive damage to its credibility and cost hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements, with some dioceses declaring bankruptcy.

Italy's Church, as a group, has not issued a sweeping formal apology for abuse although individual bishops have.