Italian priest's trial shines light on pedophilia

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Pope Benedict XVI in an unusual move has invited cardinals from around the world to a daylong summit Friday at the Vatican to discuss some of the key issues facing the church, including its handling of clerical sex abuse scandals.

While attention has focused on many abuse cases in the U.S. and Northern Europe, revelations are now emerging on the Vatican's doorstep: A trial has been under way in Italy for months, and the defendant, Don Ruggero Conti, a charismatic 55-year-old priest, is charged with molesting seven boys.

At each hearing, many parents, including Giovanna Baretta, come to cheer the priest and show their support. Baretta, who has known Conti for decades, entrusted her son, now 30, to his care.

"We believe this is a conspiracy, a witch hunt," she said. "They are slinging mud against an exceptional priest. It's all part of an attack against the church."

The atmosphere outside the courtroom is tense. The alleged victims, their lawyers and their families are escorted by the police because of death threats; threats have also been made against the presiding judge.

The alleged victims some as young as 13 at the time of the alleged abuse have given detailed descriptions of sexual violence.

One witness, 24-year-old Matteo Mongiu, told the court that boys would often sleep at Conti's house and that the priest would ask one of the boys to sleep with him in his room. Mongiu testified that the priest never abused him, but he said it annoyed him when Conti would fondle him and lick his ears.

Plaintiffs' lawyers say the trial has already made history. They say it's the first time an Italian bishop has taken the stand in such a case.

That bishop, Gino Reali, Conti's direct supervisor, admitted he knew of the accusations made against Conti by numerous people two years before the arrest. Reali was visibly uncomfortable when he was asked why he did not stop Conti's contact with children.

"I tried to stick to facts because I believed I needed to act based on facts, not rumors," he said, in Italian. "Lots of rumors end up on my desk."

The Vatican requires bishops to inform the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith if an accusation has a semblance of truth. The congregation then decides if a church trial is warranted. Reali testified he didn't think there was sufficient evidence.

The bishop's testimony was one of the rare occasions in Italy where a high-ranking prelate has had to answer to civic authorities. But the trial has received minimal coverage in the Italian media.

This is a sign, Vatican watchers say, of the Holy See's influence over everything that happens in what's known as the Shadow of St. Peter's Dome.

Roberto Mirabile, president of an association that works on behalf of victims of pedophilia, laments that in Italy clerical sex abuse is still a taboo topic. "What we see is a very disconcerting mentality of a church hierarchy which still does not grasp the devastating effects of pedophile crimes on minors," he said. "This trial is proof of how much hypocrisy exists around this issue."

Yet continuing revelations of widening sex abuse scandals are beginning to have an impact even in Italy.

Not long after Reali's testimony, the Italian Bishops' Conference acknowledged that it is possible that its members covered up abuse, and it revealed that in the past decade 100 Italian priests have faced church trials for sexual abuse of minors.

But no information on the trials' outcome was made available.