Vatican sex abuse trial exposes ‘unhealthy’ environment within youth seminary

Unprecedented and based on the child protection laws put in place by Pope Francis, the trial also underlines the often demeaning culture permeating Catholic institutions.

In this Jan. 31, 2021, file photo, people are reflected on a puddle as they walk in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino, File)

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — Witnesses at a Vatican criminal trial on Wednesday (Feb. 24) described “an unhealthy environment” at St. Pius X preparatory seminary for Vatican altar boys, where a priest is accused of sexually abusing a student.

The trial is the first to address alleged sexual abuse within the Vatican walls. St. Pius X, whose students are ages 12-18, is run by the Diocese of Como but is located in the Catholic nation-state, a stone’s throw away from Pope Francis’ residence.

Unprecedented and based on the child protection laws for the Vatican put in place by Francis, the trial has served to highlight the progress those reforms have achieved, but it also underlines the often demeaning culture permeating Catholic institutions.

RELATED: Pope Francis removes pontifical secrecy for sexual abuse cases

The case involves two priests, the Rev. Gabriele Martinelli, who is charged with molesting an underage seminarian while Martinelli was a senior altar boy at St. Pius X, and the Rev. Enrico Radice, rector of the seminary at the time, who is accused of covering up the case.

Two weeks ago, Martinelli vigorously denied the allegations on the stand and said his accusers were motivated by ill will against the school.

But on Wednesday, witnesses who attended the seminary around the time of the alleged abuse told the court that the culture of the school made it ripe for abuse.

There were “jokes about looking feminine, on physical appearance,” Andrea Spinato, 31, who attended St. Pius X from 2000 to 2008, told Vatican prosecutors. Seminarians were mocked for their regional accents or habits and for their parents’ occupations. 

Spinato also said it was not uncommon to see Martinelli “touching” and “making advances” toward younger students.

“It was a trying experience,” said Gilles Donghi, 35, who attended the school for a month in the summer of 2009.

Today Martinelli and Radice are both priests in the Como Diocese, in northern Italy, which removed them from ministry once the allegations became public in 2017 in numerous media reports. The religious order that runs the seminary, the Opera Don Folchi, has vehemently denied the accusations, which were known at the Vatican and at the diocese from 2012 onward.

Donghi testified that the Diocese of Como wanted to remove Radice from his position at the seminary earlier but was prevented from doing so by Cardinal Angelo Comastri, the archpriest of St. Peter’s Basilica, who had investigated the allegations. Many were convinced that the accusations were nothing more than “lies and calumny,” Donghi said.

Another witness, Alessandro Flaminio Ottaviani, took part in seminary activities from 2010 to 2011 and described the institution as “not a good environment, where there were strong psychological pressures.” He said seminarians were often mocked with “jokes that had homosexual undertones and were given feminine nicknames.”

Ottaviani said he personally saw Martinelli inappropriately touch one of the seminarians but said that there were no channels for him to report the priest. He said that Radice had a special regard for “his protégé,” Martinelli, and that “Cardinal Comastri knew everything and never did anything” to address the matter.

In 2013, Ottaviani wrote a letter to Pope Francis to denounce what he had seen at St. Pius X.

The Rev. Pierre Paul, a priest at St. Peter’s Basilica, was also called to testify, since he had spoken to Martinelli’s alleged victim about his experience at the seminary. “He never explicitly told me what was wrong, but it was clear that there were issues in the emotional-sexual area,” he said.

Paul also sent a report to the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, created by Pope Francis in 2014 to address the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church and headed by Archbishop Sean Patrick O’Malley of Boston.

On Thursday, Vatican prosecutors will hear the testimony of Bishop Oscar Cantoni of Como.

RELATED: Pope Francis attempts to tackle sexual abuse globally and in his own backyard

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