'Possible' priest abuse cover-ups in Italy
'Something wrong that must be corrected,' top bishop says28 May, 15:21
Asked whether any of the 100 canon law abuse trials in Italy over the last decade may have involved cover-ups by bishops, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco told reporters: "There is a possibility".
The worldwide abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church have sparked particular rage because of the way cases were hushed up, especially in Ireland where two reports found evidence of "systematic" cover-ups over decades.
Bagnasco, who is head of the Italian Bishops Conference (CEI), did not cite any of the cases and was unable to put a number on the victims.
However, he suggested that Italian Church officials may have sometimes been more inclined to protect the Church rather than reporting cases to the police.
"It was something wrong, which must be corrected and overcome," he said, without going into further detail.
He also said he was himself "ready to meet with any victim at any time, day or night, and I expect all other bishops to do the same". Bagnasco was speaking at the end of CEI's 61st annual assembly, where earlier this week his No.2, Msgr Mariano Crociata, bowed to media pressure to say how many child abuse cases there had been in Italy.
Crociata said there had been "about 100" in the last decade but did not say how many priests had been prosecuted or defrocked.
Msgr Crociata also said Italy had no need for a special Church panel on abuse like the ones set up in Germany and other European countries.
Bagnasco reiterated this on Friday, stressing that, instead of panels, "every bishop will be the reference point for victims and will take decisions according to the local situation".
Last week an Italian bishop gave evidence for the first time at a trial of a suspected paedophile priest, admitting he had heard rumours two years before the arrest but did not report them.
Bagnasco, 67, who is currently archbishop of Genoa, said Friday that in all his years in the Church he had only had to deal with a case of suspected paedophilia once, when he was archbishop of Pesaro from 1998 to 2006.
He said he had dismissed the case after "long and careful deliberation," deciding there was "no substance to the rumour". The public record of abuse cases in Italy has been emerging slowly.
This week a priest went on trial in Savona for alleged sexual violence against a 12-year-old girl.
Then a 73-year-old Milan priest, Father Domenico Pezzini, known for his support of gay rights, was arrested for allegedly abusing a 13-year-old boy.
At a preliminary hearing in the latter case Friday, Pezzini denied wrongdoing.
Bagnasco's remark on the possibility of cover-ups came a day after Pope Benedict XVI addressed the CEI assembly and made his most explicit plea yet for the Catholic Church to heal the wounds caused by the scandals.
A "humble and painful admission" of "the wounds caused by the weakness and sins of some of the Church's members" must lead to "interior renewal", Benedict said.
"What is cause for scandal must translate itself for us into the urge to re-learn penance, accept purification, learn forgiveness on the one hand and on the other the need for justice".
Bagnasco told the bishops that the 83-year-old pontiff was "up to the challenges" posed by the scandals, which he was "tackling with credibility and lucidity".
The Vatican has been responding with increasing openness to the scandals that first emerged in the US in 2002 before spreading to Australia, Ireland, Netherlands, Norway, Austria, Germany and now Italy.
Critics have accused the pope of failing to take proper action when he was head of the doctrinal office that deals with paedophilia cases.
The Vatican has said Benedict, on the contrary, made it easier to punish offenders as well as preventing paedophiles from becoming priests.
The pontiff has met with victims of paedophile priests in the US, Australia and, most recently, Malta where he is said to have wept as he prayed with them.
At Easter he sent a pastoral letter to Ireland expressing his "shame" over decades of abuse and cover-ups there.
The Vatican recently published the guidelines it has been using since 2003, stressing all cases are reported to the police as soon as possible.
It has also said that Benedict will be able to defrock paedophiles immediately.