Italy’s bishops respond to clergy sex abuse

VATICAN CITY — Italy’s Catholic bishops are declaring a new era of transparency and truth about clergy sex abuse, as awareness of the scandal that has convulsed much of the Catholic world begins to take hold in a country where it was long ignored.

Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, president of the Italian bishops’ conference, said Thursday that a national advisory center of lay and religious experts is being created to help dioceses educate personnel about protecting children and help bishops investigate abuse reports.

Italy’s bishops have lagged behind their counterparts in much of the West in confronting clergy sex abuse. Their first guidelines, published in 2014, made clear bishops were under no obligation to report crimes to police.

While the scandal hasn’t yet erupted in Italy on the scale that it has elsewhere, there have been several high-profile cases of abuse and cover-up by bishops that show the Italian church is by no means immune to the problem.

Bassetti acknowledged that “in the past” the Italian church sought to avoid scandal at all cost by keeping cases quiet. But he said the Italian bishops, at their just-concluded national assembly, had made a “radical, evangelical choice” toward transparency.

“The Gospel says there shouldn’t be scandals, but if there are scandals, it’s better that they are exposed so that the truth can triumph,” he told reporters. “This calls us all to a great transparency.”

He said the Italian church is updating its guidelines, but it’s not clear to what extent the revised norms will address when bishops cover up abuse or are themselves accused of sexual misconduct, an issue that dominated the just-ended conference of U.S. bishops this week.

Pope Francis, who as bishop of Rome has a unique relationship with the Italian conference, has summoned bishops from around the world to a February summit on abuse prevention.