A Vatican court heard testimony on Wednesday and Thursday, from witnesses who said the accuser in a case of alleged abuse and coverup inside the Vatican’s minor seminary is “extremely credible” and that he was also “very vulnerable” at the time the alleged abuse occurred, because of his parents’ separation and general family situation. Witnesses also described a culture of psychological manipulation, cliques and favoritism in the ranks, winking negligence on the part of the structure’s senior administrators, and casual cruelty among the boys themselves.
The trial is underway in Vatican City’s criminal court, where two priests face charges: Fr. Gabriele Martinelli, 28, and Fr. Enrico Radice, 71. Martinelli, a former pupil at the Vatican’s Saint Pius X (Preseminario San Pio X) minor seminary ordained in 2017, is accused of abusing a junior pupil — L.G. — when Martinelli was a senior boy at the school. Radice, former rector of the institution, is accused of covering up and enabling Martinelli’s abusive behavior.
Who is responsible?
The Diocese of Como oversees St. Pius X minor seminary through its Don Folci Association, and on Thursday, Bishop Oscar Cantoni of Como testified that the diocese had ordered the accused to pay damages to the victim-accuser at some point before the criminal trial opened in the Vatican – a fact defense counsel impugned as prejudicial and compromising.
Bishop Cantoni came into the see of Como in November 2016, and inherited the Martinelli affair from his predecessor, Bishop Diego Coletti, who will not testify because he has confirmed cognitive impairment.
Bishop Cantoni also testified to ambiguities of jurisdiction that made it difficult for him to understand who was in charge of St. Pius X: Como through Don Folci, or the Vatican? Eventually, he sought clarification from the Cardinal Secretary of State, Pietro Parolin, who told him: “I have been able to clarify that ultimate responsibility belongs to the Diocese of Como.”
Asked why he admitted Fr. Martinelli to priestly Orders, Bishop Cantoni said that he had good reports from both St. Pius X and the Seminario Francese where Martinelli completed his studies for the priesthood.
Bishop Cantoni made that decision notwithstanding reports from priests in charge of Fr. Martinelli’s formation, received between 2006 and 2012, which spoke of Martinelli’s “sexually inappropriate conduct.”
“It is undisputed that in the years in question [Fr. Martinelli] was not a cleric,” Bishop Cantoni said. “The subjective requirement for the application of the norms [on clerical abuse of minors] is lacking,” in other words, that Martinelli was not a priest or deacon yet so he was not subject to the canonical norms that make clerical abuse a crime.
“Since he has been in Como, first as a deacon and then as a priest,” Bishop Cantoni told the court, “there has not been a report” of abuse against Fr. Martinelli. He testified that Martinelli’s behavior was a passing phase. “It was a transitory homosexual tendency linked to adolescence,” he said. Cantoni went on to say that no one “has ever complained” to him about Martinelli.
Bishop Cantoni also discussed the disciplinary measures imposed on the accused Fr. Martinelli between 2017 and 2019, who was sent first to a monastery in the Valle d’Aosta and then to a protected structure in Como where he was allowed to speak only to his superiors and his parents. Cantoni said those measures were to protect Martinelli from further damage to his reputation. Journalists had already “injured his good name and dignity,” Cantoni said.
What evidence of crime?
One witness, 34-year-old Flaminio Ottaviani – claimed he saw Fr. Martinelli touch another boy’s private parts “during a tussle in a dorm room” on one occasion. Other witnesses reported indirect knowledge of other more serious abuse, frequently through Kamil Jarzembowski – another former seminarian and whistleblower – who claims to have witnessed the assaults against one boy in his own dorm room and reportedly brought news of the abuse to superiors as early as 2012.
It is unclear whether Mr. Jarzembowski will testify.
Also on Wednesday, judges heard testimony from witnesses who said that the former archpriest of St Peter’s Basilica, Cardinal Angelo Comastri – who was the pope’s Vicar for Vatican City at the time – “knew everything” and “did nothing” to stop the abuse or bring it to light. Cardinal Comastri is not charged in connection with the case.
Cardinal Comastri’s role
Cardinal Comastri in fact ordered two internal investigations, which the seminary leadership at the time conducted, neither of which found anything amiss. Comastri eventually also asked the man who was then the Bishop of Como, Diego Coletti, to investigate.
Half a year later, Bishop Coletti submitted a four-page report that also found nothing to substantiate the allegations. In 2017, Comastri told Italy’s ANSA news agency that Coletti “proposed that the case be archived.” Comastri also said he did not follow Coletti’s proposal, but instead ordered one boy dismissed from the seminary and returned to Como. Comastri also saw to the replacement of senior seminary staff: “In order to be even more tranquil,” Comastri told ANSA in 2017, “so that there would be fresh air.”
“Could I have done [anything] more?” Comastri went on to say to ANSA.
No one in authority reported to the police. The internal investigations unfolded years before Pope Francis reformed Vatican City law to make superiors mandatory reporters and require prosecutors to investigate such and similar claims. Witnesses over the two days however maintained that individuals made several attempts through letters and other channels to inform Pope Francis directly of troubles at Pius X.
Fr. Pierre Paul, a priest of the Oblates of the Virgin Mary and maestro of the Cappella Giulia, testified that Fr. Martinelli’s accuser took him into his confidence: “He never explicitly told me what was wrong,” Fr. Paul told the court, “but it was clear that there were problems in the affective-sexual sphere.”
Fr. Paul said Cardinal Comastri’s second-in-command at the Fabric of St. Peter’s (the office responsible for the physical plant of St. Peter’s Basilica, of which Comastri was then archpriest), “knew about [whistleblower] Kamil [Jarzembowski] and [the victim-accuser].”
Fr. Paul had brought L.G. into the Cappella Giulia when he left the minor seminary because it was a way to support him. “We gave a token (€20),” for participating in the choir, “and he had economic problems,” Paul explained, but said that [Msgr.] Lanzani told him the boy had been seen around the choir and shouldn’t be invited back: “You know what the Preseminary people are like,” Paul recalled Lanzani saying.
Fr. Paul also testified to making a report to the Commission for the Protection of Minors in2017, explaining that he would have done so sooner but for L.G.’s desire to “put a lid” on the whole story (It. Metterci una pietra sopra, “put a rock over it”), and his understanding that Mr. Jarzembowski had already sent a letter to CDF.
Fr. Paul said, “I did the same,” i.e. went to CDF, “because I think that a priest who knows something and does not speak becomes an accomplice.” He said he went to the Commission for the Protection of Minors “a couple of times” and heard that he would be questioned by Domenico Giani, then the commander of the Gendarmerie – the Vatican police force. Fr. Paul said he “was angry” even years later to see Martinelli still managing the boys’ liturgical service.
“If someone has problems of this kind,” he said, “they don’t get put with the boys.”
Other former pupils testify
31-year-old former seminary student Andrea Spinato testified that the accused – Fr. Martinelli – had “dominant, very strong role” among the schoolboys when Martinelli himself was a student, and as “a leadership character who had more grip with young and fragile children.”
Spinato and others said Martinelli had significant power, which they attributed in significant part to his relationship with Fr. Radice, then the rector of Pius X.
While still a seminarian, now-Fr. Martinelli coordinated the boys’ activities, including the altar service schedule in St. Peter’s Basilica (where minor seminary students daily serve the chapter and other Masses celebrated at the Basilica’s various altars and side chapels). Spinato explained that Martinelli had no official charge, but held and exercised his power by virtue of the Fr. Radice’s “trust” in him.
Mr. Spinato said it was not uncommon to see Fr. Martinelli “touching” other boys and “making advances” toward younger pupils. Spinato further testified that Fr. Martinelli’s “homosexual attitudes (It. atteggiamenti)” were “perceived and manifest” in his general behavior. He said this was also a reason for ridicule among some of the boys.
Christian Gilles Donghi, a 35-year-old former pupil at Pius X who left the school less than two months after he started in June of 2009, told of how the former Judicial Vicar of Como, Fr. Andrea Stabellini – who investigated the case for Bishop Coletti – told him of his concerns about the place and the actors.
Mr. Gilles Donghi told the court that Bishop Coletti and Fr. Stabellini wanted Fr. Radice out as rector. Gilles Donghi also claimed that Cardinal Comastri called the rumors then circulating about Pius X “falsehoods” and suggested they not remove Radice. Gilles Donghi – who knew Stabellini from the seminary in Lugano, where Stabellini had been his teacher – said the priest “was baffled by the Cardinal Comastri’s attitude,” but noted that there were at the time many persons convinced the allegations were “falsehoods and slander.”
Also introduced into evidence was a screenshot from a WhatsApp conversation between Mr. Gilles Donghi and Fr. Martinelli, in which Gilles Donghi – after seeing an Italian television exposé on the scandal – wrote to Martinelli to say: “Just reading Il Corriere [a leading Italian daily that covered developments in the story in November 2017, after the publication of a book by journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi, Peccato originale, and the television exposé by the muckraking Le Iene program], I am close in prayer to all those calumniated by the institution. United in prayer.”
Mr. Gilles Donghi had reportedly told judges he never contacted Martinelli.
Asked why he sent the message, Mr. Gilles Donghi said, “I don’t recall, [but] I wanted this business to come to light. As I lived it, there were diverse lights and shadows.
“An unhealthy environment”
Mr. Gilles Donghi was a student at the minor seminary for only about six weeks, from June to July, 2009. He described his brief enrolment as an “exhausting experience” and said the culture of the place as one of “vivid gossip about the curial environment, [and] mockery of subjects because of their physical appearance.”
“I, too, was mocked for effeminate attitudes,” Mr. Gilles Donghi said.
Mr. Ottaviani described the St. Pius X as “An unhealthy environment” in which there were “psychological pressures” and “ frequent homosexual jokes” as well as feminine nicknames and speculation regarding the proclivities of high-ranking curial officials including cardinals and bishops.
Other witnesses testified to similar effect.
The key questions – and what’s next?
The picture that emerged from the two days of testimony Wednesday and Thursday is one of serious social and cultural dysfunction within the St. Pius X minor seminary, and significant failures of oversight on the part of leadership at several levels.
The narrow question on which the trial turns, however, is whether there is evidence to prove to the judges’ satisfaction that Fr. Martinelli abused his fellow pupil and that Fr. Radice enabled his abusive behavior and covered for him.
Then, there is the technical question of the damages Como ordered the accused pay the victim – an “interlocutory” order, meaning that it has no force at least until the trial concludes – which defense attorneys argued was extremely prejudicial to the accused.
If the court accepts the argument that the order was the basis of the trial, and also prejudicial, the issue becomes highly technical.
The “Wikileaks II” trial ended in the conviction of two former Vatican officials, but saw charges against a pair of Italian journalists dropped because the Vatican judges accepted defense arguments claiming the Vatican court lacked jurisdiction. That decision, however, came at the end of the lengthy proceedings.
The issues at stake here are different. Neither the questions of fact to be established, nor and the legal niceties potentially involved lend themselves to easy comparison with trials in other jurisdictions or with previous trials in the Vatican.
The next court sessions are scheduled for Mrch 17-18, during which the victim-accuser is to take the stand and a visit to the seminary structure is slated.
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