Editor’s note: This story includes details some readers may find disturbing.
An unprecedented trial is underway this month at the Vatican, the result of a whistleblower going public.
A young priest is charged with sexually abusing an altar boy over a five-year period inside Vatican City walls. An older priest is charged with covering up the abuse.
It’s the first criminal trial for sexual abuse to take place in the Vatican court.
The first hearing of the trial, held earlier this month, lasted just eight minutes — enough for the Vatican court to hear graphic descriptions of the charges. The alleged victim, identified by his initials, LG, was forced “to undergo carnal acts, acts of sodomy and masturbation at different times and in different places inside Vatican City,” according to charges read out by the court clerk.
The alleged abuse took place from 2007, when the victim was 13, until 2012.
The crime scene is the closed world of the St. Pius X youth seminary, whose residents — some as young as 11 — are known as the “pope’s altar boys.” They serve Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica and are considering becoming priests.
One person closely following the trial from the U.S. is Anne Barrett Doyle, the co-director of BishopAccountability.org, which tracks clerical abuse cases around the world.
The Vatican trial is being run by the Roman Catholic Church, she notes, not a secular court. “So the first question will be, can the judge be impartial?” she says.
“The elephant in the courtroom is why this took so long,” she says. “The trial should have happened years ago, when the whistleblower first went to church authorities.”
The whistleblower — the alleged victim’s roommate — is Kamil Jarzembowski, who was 15 at the time. In 2012, he reported the abuse to church authorities. He received no response and at the end of the academic year was kicked out of the seminary.
In 2017, he went public.
“I saw my roommate being abused by another seminarian,” he told an Italian investigative TV program. “I was scared. I didn’t understand. It was the first time I saw two people having sex.”
Over the course of the first academic year of the alleged abuse, the whistleblower said, he witnessed his roommate being raped at least 100 times — more or less every other day.
Public exposure in the Italian media of crimes allegedly committed a stone’s throw from St. Peter’s Basilica seriously undermined Pope Francis’ pledge of zero tolerance for clerical sex abuse.
Following Jarzembowski’s allegations, Francis waived the statute of limitations for sexual abuse and instituted a new child protection policy inside the Vatican City. After an investigation, Vatican prosecutors issued indictments last year.
The alleged abuser is the Rev. Gabriele Martinelli, 28, who was a seminarian and has since become a priest. The other defendant is the 72-year-old Rev. Enrico Radice, the seminary’s former rector — who is charged with aiding and abetting the alleged abuse. The defendants will take the stand when the trial resumes on Tuesday. Neither has yet entered a plea.
The presiding judge, Giuseppe Pignatone, is a prominent Italian magistrate, formerly one of Italy’s leading anti-mafia prosecutors. The pope appointed him president of the Vatican criminal court last year as part of his reforms of Vatican bureaucracy.
The trial will follow Vatican City legislation, something that worries Francesco Zanardi, president of Rete l’Abuso, Italy’s first support group for victims of clerical sexual abuse.
“As long as the Vatican views pedophilia as a crime against God and not against the individual,” says Zanardi, “no verdict can provide justice for the victim.”
If the court finds the two defendants guilty, Barrett Doyle says, the Vatican must also hold their superiors to account.
“It is really crucial,” she says, “that the church itself investigate the whole network of people who failed this victim and who intimidated the whistleblower.”