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What you need to know: The Vatican seminary abuse trial

On Thursday, an Italian bishop testified at a trial in Vatican City over charges of sexual abuse and cover-up at a preseminary within the city state. Bishop Oscar Cantoni of the Diocese of Como gave evidence Feb. 25 in a trial over the conduct of a former student at the St. Pius X preseminary.

The court proceedings are a landmark for the Holy See, since they involve the criminal trial of clerics in the Vatican City’s civil court on charges of sexual abuse of minors — a first.

The Vatican Gardens. Credit: Ruth Johnston/CC BY 2.0

So, what do you need to know?

The ‘preseminary’

The St. Pius X Preseminary is run by Opera Don Folci, a religious community under the supervision of the Diocese of Como. It is located on the grounds of the Vatican gardens, and is home to about a dozen boys, aged 12-18, who are discerning a vocation to the priesthood and who serve liturgies in St. Peter’s basilica. 

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The backstory

In 2017, two former students alleged in Italian media that another former student, now Fr. Gabriele Martinelli, had sexually abused preseminary students for years, beginning in his own time as a student at the school. The abuse is alleged to have gone on from 2007-2012.

The former students claimed seminary formators had failed to act on abuse allegations. 

One of the students making the allegation says he was a victim of Martinelli. He is referred to in the trial as LG. The other student to make the initial allegation is LG’s former roommate at the preseminary.

Fr. Pierre Paul, the director of a choir at St. Peter’s Basilica, has testified he made a report about the alleged abuse to the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors in 2017. He said the alleged victim, LG, had asked him not to make the report sooner.

After the allegation was initially published in an Italian newspaper, Pope Francis dispensed from prescription - the canonical term for the statute of limitations - in order to allow a criminal investigation and trial to proceed.

The trial formally opened in October, 2020. During a previous hearing, it was stated in court that L.G. apparently wrote directly to the pope about his allegations  in June 2017.

The defendants

Fr. Gabriele Martinelli, a former student at the seminary, is accused of sexually abusing another student there beginning when both he and they were minors.

Martinelli is accused of using his authority as a senior student, and threats of violence, to coerce “LG,” who was 13 when the alleged abuse began, into performing sexual acts.

While both Martinelli and LG were under 18 at the time the alleged abuse began, it is alleged to have continued until Martinelli was 20 years old and LG 19 years old.

Martinelli, now 28, was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Como in 2017. He has called the charges “unfounded.”  He has also said that claims of a homosexual culture at the preseminary are part of a plot by liturgical traditionalists against the institution.

Also on trial is Msgr. Enrico Radice, a former rector of the seminary. He is accused of attempting to cover up the abuse, and of lying to Vatican investigators during a preliminary criminal investigation in 2018, during which he stated that he had no knowledge of any sexual activity ever taking place at the preseminary.

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What other allegations are there?

On Feb. 24, several former students at the preseminary testified to a culture of “gossip,” “effeminate behaviors,” and homosexual conduct among a group of students led by Martinelli. Former students have also testified that they saw Martinelli grope and make sexual advances on other young students, and that those who turned him down could be socially ostracized. 

At least one of the former students told the court that “Radice knew but did nothing” about homosexual conduct at the preseminary, and that attempts to complain to formators were rebuffed. 

One former student, Christian Gilles Donghi, testified on Wednesday that the former Bishop of Como, Diego Coletti, had wanted to remove Radice as rector over rumors of inappropriate behavior among the students. According to Donghi, Cardinal Angelo Comastri, Vicar General for Vatican City until last week, had stopped the removal and dismissed the allegations as “lies and falsehoods.”

The trial

The trial is being heard before the court of the Vatican City. Although sexual abuse in a seminary, and covering up sexual abuse of minors are crimes in canon law, those things also violate the criminal law of the Vatican City state. 

The tribunal is led by Giuseppe Pignatone, head of the city state’s court, who is also in charge of the ongoing investigation into the Vatican financial scandal.

What happens next

After Thursday’s hearing, the trial will adjure for several weeks before reconvening to hear 

L.G.’s testimony on March 17, with the court set to tour the seminary building the following day. Further hearings are set for April.

If convicted, both defendants could be sentenced to prison terms. Although Vatican City does have a small jail with a limited number of cells, they are ordinarily only used for holding people after an initial arrest or for short periods of time. 

Under the terms of the Lateran Treaty between the Holy See and Italy, criminals sentenced to longer prison terms can serve their time in Italian prisons.

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