Overlooked during Vatican summit blitz: New York Times looks at sexual abuse -- in Italy


What a wild week it has been on the religion-news beat, with the Vatican sexual-abuse summit blitzi rolling over into the long-awaited United Methodist special conference on marriage, sexuality, church tradition and the Bible.

Please allow me to pause and grab something out of my GetReligion “guilt file” — as in an important story from the Vatican coverage that I didn’t have time to address at the time.

Early on in the Vatican summit, I wrote a GetReligion piece with this headline: “'Abuse of minors' — Rare chance to hear New York Times sing harmony with Vatican establishment.” I found it interesting to see the world’s most powerful newspaper sticking really close to the Catholic establishment’s media-message line that the conference was about the clergy sexual abuse of children and that’s that. What about seminarians? What about the abuse of teen-aged males? What about the nuns? I thought it was strange.

I stand by that post. However, that doesn’t mean that the Times didn’t offer other coverage that turned against the Vatican tide.

So let’s flash back to this important headline: “The Vatican Is Talking About Clerical Abuse, but Italy Isn’t. Here’s Why.” Things get interesting at the very beginning, in the anecdotal lede:

SAVONA, Italy — On camping trips, Francesco Zanardi and other boys from his local parish always dreaded being called to sleep in their priest’s tent.

“We all knew what would happen to the boy in the tent,” said Mr. Zanardi, who said he was first abused by his priest at age 11.

Speaking in Savona, a port city in northwestern Italy that gave the church two popes, Mr. Zanardi, 48, said the victimization went on for years, traumatizing him and leading to a substance abuse problem. It also led him to help found Rete L’Abuso, the first support group for clerical abuse survivors in Italy — a country that, in an added indignity, often doesn’t seem to care.

That indifference is largely due, experts say, to how tightly intertwined the Roman Catholic Church is with Italian culture and history. Even today, though the Vatican and its popes don’t wield the power they used to, parish churches and priests often play a central role in the life of a community.

Note these words — “first abused by his priest at age 11” and the “victimization went on for years.”

In other words, what we have here is a classic case of grooming a post-pubescent male as he enters the teen years. This is a case of ephebophilia, not pedophilia as classically defined (the abuse of pre-pubescent children). In the American context, cases in which priests abuse male teens make up about 80 percent of the ongoing Catholic abuse crisis.

Media frequently note — accurately — that classic pedophiles tend to strike young children of both genders. That is an important fact. However, the ephebophilia patterns in the Catholic scandals are part of the story, too. As it has been stated many times: Men who want to have sex with young women tend to have sex with young women. Men who want to have sex with young men tend to have sex with young men.

This times story never stops to explore this part of the story. It does include some other cases of male-on-male abuse that may have started as pedophilia, but then continued into the teen years. Hold that thought, because we will come back to it.

The big news in this particular report is elsewhere and it is important. Read this:

This month, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child gave Italy a failing grade on protecting minors from sexual exploitation.

In particular, the committee expressed concern “about the numerous cases of children having been sexually abused by religious personnel of the Catholic Church” and the “low number of investigations and criminal prosecutions” of those crimes. And while other countries have taken a hard look at the problem of clerical abuse, Italy has approached it with something closer to a media blackout.

There’s more:

Though the empty pews of many parishes suggest that much of Italy’s population is Catholic in name only, cultural ties to the church are still strong. Festivities for a city’s patron saint sweep up citizens, churchgoers or not, and some 8,000 church-run oratories throughout Italy offer after-school programs and other activities for children. The heroes of two of the most popular shows on Italy’s national broadcaster are a priest and a nun.

“Italians tend to know their parish priest, so if they hear of an abuse case somewhere they say, ‘Yes, it’s horrendous, but our priest is not like that,’ ” Monsignor Lorenzo Ghizzoni, the Italian church’s top official responsible for protecting minors, said in an interview in his office in Ravenna.

Such denial often seems to be echoed in secular institutions.

Survivors accuse the government and the judiciary, which has been slow to investigate clerical abuse cases, of silence on the issue.

I found myself wondering if similar patterns existed elsewhere in Europe and other “culturally Catholic” areas around the world. That’s a valid story.

In conclusion, let me note that — while the Times story avoided the ephebophilia angle — it did circle back and mention the abuse of nuns. It also made sure to note that Italy is not all that progressive, in terms of its laws, when dealing with same-sex issues.

When the Italian news media does focus on clergy abuse, some outlets have concentrated on the sexuality of the victim.

Mr. Zanardi, who is gay, recalled that when he began speaking out for survivors, some news outlets identified him as “the gay activist” who was denouncing the church. He called it “a way to discredit me.”

That’s part of the story, too. This four-decade scandal has many, many layers — all of them tragic and hellish. They all deserve coverage.

Even in Italy. In this case, the New York Times looked at one or two layers, while avoiding others.

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