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Italy abuse case highlights how scandal slowly beginning to come to light in pope's backyard

ROME (AP) — The clergy sexual abuse scandal is slowly gathering steam in Italy with increasing media coverage, criminal convictions and the launch Monday of an investigative podcast dedicated to a case that tangentially involved Pope Francis.

A Sicilian court last week convicted a priest of sexual violence and attempted sexual violence against three minors and sentenced him to four and a half years in prison. It also held his diocese, Piazza Armerina in Sicily, liable for separate civil damages and legal fees, a significant ruling given the influence the Catholic Church wields in all aspects of Italian society, particularly in small-town Sicily.

Piazza Armeria Bishop Rosario Gisana was recorded admitting to having covered up for the priest, the Rev. Giuseppe Rugolo. He was recorded saying he had covered up for another priest who did far worse and describing Rugolo's actions as mere “stupidities” of a young man.

Victim Antonio Messina told his story at the launch Monday of the podcast about his case, saying it was his duty to speak out after he said he was “betrayed” by his church.

“After the violence and abuse I suffered, there was another abuse that I received from the bishop of the diocese of not being believed,” Messina said. “If this can open the doors (to others coming forward) ... then bring it on.”

Italian investigative journalists Stefano Feltri, Giorgio Meletti and Federica Tourn launched the seven-episode podcast, using recordings that emerged during the closed-door trial. In one, recounted by Tourn, the bishop seemingly boasted about having Francis’ support because he had done Francis a favor.

Francis, who visited Gisana’s diocese during a 2018 day trip to Sicily, clearly is fond of the bishop. He said so publicly on the eve of prosecutors’ scheduled final arguments.

“This bishop is great. He was persecuted, calumnied but he’s been firm, always correct, a correct man,” Francis said Nov. 6 during a Vatican audience with Gisana and pilgrims.

Italy’s Catholic Church, unique because of the presence of the Vatican in its midst, has managed to avoid a major public reckoning with its legacy of abuse and cover-up.

The scandal here has remained relatively low-key, unlike in other countries where the hierarchy has had to respond to mounting public outrage, aggressive prosecutors and civil litigators and a plethora of support groups for victims and local media willing to tell their stories.

It seems the latter at least is slowly beginning to change.

The Enna, Sicily reporter for Italian news agency ANSA, Pierelisa Rizzo, who said she was sued for defamation for her coverage of the trial, said the “Pandora’s Box” of reporting on clergy abuse in Italy was now opened.

Just this weekend, national daily La Repubblica published an expose of the plight of abused nuns.

Attorney Elianna Parasaliti, who represented Messina, welcomed the media attention, saying that she, Messina and the reporters covering the case were threatened, sued and in some cases followed by police during the trial.

“This attention for us was a form of protection, today I can say it clearly, because in these years we have really feared for ourselves and our families," she said. “The climate of hostility that we felt is something that I don’t believe has precedence.”

In a statement last week after the verdict, the Sicilian diocese pushed back at the media coverage of the trial and noted that the priest had been convicted of lesser charges in Messina’s case and that his former parish had been exonerated entirely of liability.

The diocese said it wasn’t liable as a result of Gisana’s actions or those of his predecessor, but merely because it was responsible for the actions of one of its priests.

Appeals are planned and in Italy, judgements aren’t considered final until all appeals are exhausted.

The church shelved the case internally on a technicality because Rugolo was a seminarian at the time the abuse began. The Vatican’s in-house laws at the time only called for canonical sanctions against priests who abuse children, not seminarians.

Attorney Parasaliti said she would seek to reopen the canonical case on the basis of the conviction from the Sicilian court.