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Seminarians, abuse claims and Viganò: what we know about the Vatican City inquiry

Cardinal Angelo Comastri examined the allegations (Getty)

The factual details and legalities of the case are extremely complex

Vatican City’s chief prosecutor has handed down criminal indictments against two priests in connection with sexual abuse allegedly committed at the Preseminario Pio X, a minor seminary located inside Vatican City.

The Press Office of the Holy See announced the formal charges on Tuesday afternoon, in a statement that named two men: the accused abuser, Fr Gabriele Martinelli; and Fr Enrico Radice, who was rector of the seminary at the time, on charges of aiding and abetting. The Press Office statement explained that the indictment stems from a Vatican police investigation opened in 2017 in the wake of media reports, and that the indictments have come down only after Pope Francis waived the statute of limitations for Vatican City.

The Preseminario Pio X is a minor seminary inside Vatican City. Built in the 1950s with a bequest from the Diocese of Como, the institution’s mission is to promote priestly vocations. Pio X seminarians serve Masses in St Peter’s Basilica and at other liturgical functions of the Papal Household. Most of the students are middle school-aged.

Kamil Jarzembowski — who had been a student of the Preseminario Pio X — had previously accused Martinelli, an older student, of serial sexual assault against another seminarian who was Jarzembowski’s roommate. Jarzembowski alleged that several of the assaults took place in his dorm room, with Jarzembowski himself present.

Under the direction of Cardinal Angelo Comastri, the Vicar General for Vatican City, the superiors of the seminary looked into the accusations, but found nothing to substantiate them. The Gendarmerie (the Vatican police) did not investigate the claims when they were first lodged. Jarzembowski was dismissed from the seminary. The accused, Martinelli, went on to receive Holy Orders for the Diocese of Como, being ordained a priest in October of 2017 by the new bishop of the diocese, Oscar Cantoni, who had taken office the previous year.

In November of 2017 Cardinal Comastri defended his handling of the matter, which had come under critical scrutiny in the Italian news media. Comastri told the Italian wire service ANSA that he in fact ordered two internal investigations, neither of which found anything amiss. Comastri claims he also asked the Bishop of Como to look into the matter, since the Diocese of Como oversees the minor seminary through its Don Folci Association. More than half a year after that request, Bishop Diego Coletti of Como submitted a four-page report that also found nothing.

Comastri also told ANSA that Bishop Coletti “proposed that the case be archived”, ie closed, but said he did not accept Coletti’s proposal. Comastri told the wire service he ordered one boy to be sent away from the seminary and back to Como. Comastri also saw that senior staff at the institution were replaced, “In order to be even more tranquil,” Comastri told ANSA, “so that there would be ‘fresh air’.”

“Could I have done [anything] more?” Comastri went on to say.

After news of those doings reached the public in November of 2017, the Press Office of the Holy See announced that the Vatican had reopened the case, citing “new elements” that had then only recently come to light. “In view of the new elements that have recently emerged,” the Press Office statement read, “a new investigation is underway, to shed full light on what really happened.”

The story went largely quiet in 2018 and the first half of 2019, but the celebrity ecclesiastical whistle-blower, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, made mention of the case in remarks that were published in the early summer. In July 2019, the Catholic Herald asked the Press Office about the status of the investigations, and received confirmation that they were ongoing, though the Press Office offered no further details at the time. It was just shy of two weeks after the Herald’s inquiries that Pope Francis waived the statute of limitations.

The alleged abuse occurred before the reforms to Vatican City’s criminal and criminal-procedural law, which went into effect earlier this year. The new Vatican City law makes all Vatican officials mandatory reporters of child abuse, obliging them to report any suspicion of untoward activity — and requires prosecutors to investigate abuse reports.

The statement from the Press Office of the Holy See says the alleged incidents on which the accused are to be tried would have occurred before 2012, when both the alleged victim and the alleged perpetrator would have been minors. Italian media have reported that civil authorities in Rome are conducting their own investigation into the alleged abuse at the Preseminario Pio X. Il Messaggero reported in August that Italian prosecutors are also considering that the accused, Fr Martinelli, may have abused the authority he had as a sort of “head boy” at the school during the course of his alleged acts of abuse.

Analysis

The factual details of the case are complex, as are the legalities. For one thing, the “civil” jurisdiction of Vatican City is not to be confused with the ecclesiastical jurisdiction, the Vicariate for Vatican City, which Cardinal Comastri heads. The overlapping jurisdictions and multiple institutional layers of responsibility for the case make for difficult navigation, but criminal trials in Vatican City court have been meaningfully public for many years.

Readers will recall the high-profile VatiLeaks trials, as well as those of two men in connection with a corruption scandal involving the Bambino Gesù children’s hospital and contracts for renovations to former Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone’s apartment. Cardinal Bertone was not indicted.

The Press Office of the Holy See did not respond to repeated inquiries from the Catholic Herald, made Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning, but so far there is no indication that either Cardinal Comastri or Bishop Coletti are in prosecutors’ sights at present. Their conduct of the business when it was theirs to investigate presumably did not escape investigators’ microscopes this time around. Quite apart from criminal investigation or prosecution, some more robust and detailed account of their behaviour would serve both the cause of transparency and the broader interests of reform in the Church.

Another outstanding question is whether Vos estis lux mundi will come into play. Designed to facilitate reports of abuse and coverup to higher Church authority and streamline Church investigations into abuse and coverup, Pope Francis’s signature reform law came into effect on June 1. The “metropolitan system” for investigating and prosecuting abuse and coverup, which Vos estis established, faced a sceptical welcome in the Church, and is under significant scrutiny in several countries where Church leaders appear reticent to use it. The Archdiocese of Milan, which has metropolitan jurisdiction over the Diocese of Como, did not immediately respond to queries from The Catholic Herald.

That is not terribly surprising, given the complexities of the case. The Preseminario Pio X is physically located within Vatican City, but is attached to the Diocese of Como. Even the intra-ecclesial jurisdictional issues, therefore, are manifold. Still, the case at this stage represents an opportunity for the Vatican to get in front and explain the issues, operating procedures, and assumptions, to Church leaders anxious to understand how the new law is supposed to work, and to a public eager to understand what’s going on.