Deaf Men Confront Italian Church
By Nicole Winfield
ROME – Three deaf men who say they were repeatedly sodomized and abused by priests as children confronted the church diocese yesterday about why it had not punished their abusers, saying they wanted justice.
The three men, first interviewed last year by the Associated Press, appeared on a prime-time talk show on Italy’s state-run RAI television, squaring off with the spokesman of the Verona Diocese amid a global sex-abuse scandal that has inched closer to Pope Benedict XVI.
The former students have not gone to the police because the 10-year statute of limitations expired. They have asked the priests in question to waive the statute of limitations so a case can be opened.
Their stories have found new relevance after revelations that the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – then led by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now pope – told Wisconsin bishops in 1998 to shut down a church trial for an elderly priest who allegedly molested 200 deaf boys.
The Wisconsin and Italy cases are similar in that they both involve the purported abuse of deaf children, particularly vulnerable victims since the admonition “never tell” is easily enforced as many have speech impairments.
The spokesman of the Verona Diocese, the Rev. Bruno Fasani, said that he hoped yesterday’s confrontation would be constructive and that he welcomed meeting the men. But the former students of Verona’s Antonio Provolo Institute for the Deaf refused to shake his hand.
One of the three, Dario Laiti, 59, said he could not bring himself to greet the prelate.
“It’s a problem of justice,” said Laiti, who has said he was sodomized repeatedly at the boarding school from the age of 7.
“We want justice for everything we went through, the suffering for all of our life,” said Gianni Bisoli, 61, another former student who says he was sodomized by and forced to perform oral sex on a dozen priests at the institute.
Bisoli, Laiti, and 65 other former pupils signed a statement last year saying sexual abuse, pedophilia, and corporal punishment occurred at the school from the 1950s to the 1980s.
While not all acknowledged being victims, 14 of the 67 wrote statements and made videotapes, detailing abuse they suffered at the hands of priests and brothers of the Congregation for the Company of Mary. They named 24 priests, brothers, and lay religious men. Bisoli also accused the late bishop of Verona of assaulting him.
The current bishop of Verona, Msgr. Giuseppe Zenti, initially accused the former students of lying and trying to blackmail him because they were involved in a real estate dispute with the diocese. However, after one of the accused lay religious men admitted to sexual relations with students, the bishop ordered an internal investigation. It found some abuse occurred, albeit a fraction of what had been alleged.
Advocates for the victims said the diocese investigation was fatally flawed because no one interviewed the former students.
Fasani insisted yesterday that the diocese had no solid complaint with a named victim to go on from the former students. And he read what he said was a spontaneous declaration from one of the original student signatories saying he was pressured to sign the document alleging abuse.
The students’ spokesman, Marco Lodi Rizzini, did not address the pressure accusation. But he disputed that the diocese did not know who they were. He said he personally had met twice with the bishop and other diocesan officials, had sent them letters, and that 53 former students had complained to the diocese of alleged abuse.