Five Years for a Joke About the Pope?

Italian actress escapes possible 5-year jail term for off-color joke about Pope.

September 18, 2008, 5:31 AM

LONDON, Sept. 18, 2008 — -- A popular Italian actress has avoided a possible five-year jail term over some off-color comments she made about Pope Benedict XVI.

An Italian prosecutor had vowed to take comedian Sabina Guzzanti to court on charges of religious slander.

At a July demonstration in Rome organized against the government of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Guzzanti said, "Within 20 years the Pope will be where he ought to be -- in hell, tormented by great big poofter devils, and very active ones, not passive ones."

Rome prosecutor Giovanni Ferrara initially threatened to prosecute the actress for offending the honor of the sacred and inviolable person of the pope. Today, however, Ferrara's office announced that the case would not move forward, since Italian Justice Minister Angelino Alfano decided not to proceed with the charges.

''Despite the fact that it would be possible to proceed with the case, I have decided not to give the authorization in full knowledge of the frequency and capacity of the Pope's pardon,'' Alfano told reporters.

Under Italian law, courts can sentence people to up to five years in prison for "offending the honor" of the Pope.

Guzzanti's comment was apparently directed at the Vatican's global campaign against gay marriage, an attempt to reverse the spread of legislation in other parts of the world that allows gay couples to marry.

"In this case the satire wasn't addressed against the religion but against the opinion of the pontiff against gay rights," Italian lawyer Marco Orlando told ABC News.

But Orlando said that by venturing into the politics of gay marriage, the Vatican may have left itself open to satirical comments like Guzzanti's.

"I believe that the very moment the Vatican decides to step in a political controversy and gives its opinion against a draft law meant to acknowledge the rights of a gay couple, it is exposed to the same satirical comments as any other public figure expressing the same political views. The satire in this case was meant to target a political opinion and not a religious view," Orlando said.

Far from scared by the proceeding against her, Guzzanti wrote on her Web site, "I feel honored for the charge raised against me... but before I start showing off could someone please check if I am the first one or if there have been similar cases before me? I am going to update my CV."

On her blog, the popular Italian comedian and actress encouraged fans to keep fighting for the freedom of speech and avoid being subdued by threats of lawsuit or other attacks.

Guzzanti is famous for her biting anti-establishment satire, and her No. 1 target has long been Berlusconi, whom the comedian, along with the majority of the Italian left wing, accuses of climbing the political ladder only to defend his own personal interests.

In a past appearance on Italian TV, Guzzanti impersonated Berlusconi, saying, "I am not going to sign the agreement for the European arrest warrant. One thing is to bribe an Italian judge to falsify the ruling of a trial, another thing is to bribe a slew of European judges. It's too expensive, and would suffocate any business activity."

And when a satirical TV program that she wrote for, the State TV, was censored in 2003, she struck back, presenting her side of the story in a documentary called "Viva Zapatero!," which was shown in cinemas all over Italy and won acclaim at the Venice and Sundance film festivals.

Catholics Offended by Pope Gay Reference

In a country that is home to the Catholic Church and where the majority of the citizens are Catholic, the jokes against the Pope have offended Italians who find it hard to associate the Pope with sexual and, even more upsetting for some, homosexual activity.

The organizers of the demonstration have distanced themselves from Guzzanti, and members of Berlusconi's coalition have shown support for the prosecutor.

"Her crime is not having expressed her opinions, but having insulted the Pope. Insults are not opinions, and therefore Ms. Guzzanti must be punished," Michele Scandroglio, a regional coordinator of Berlusconi's Party Forza Italia, told ABC News.

"Democracy is not a screen behind which you can hide to say and do whatever you want. We hope that the move of the judge should teach comedians to auto-regulate themselves and not go beyond the limits of good taste and common sense," said Angelo Marra, spokesperson for the Christian-Democrat Party.

Although many don't approve of the way Guzzanti expressed her personal views about the Pope, others in Italy were skeptical about sending her to prison, limiting a fundamental right such as the freedom of speech.

"It is possible to criticize the Vatican interference with Italian politics, but some comments are repulsive," said Italian newspaper editorialist Beppe Severgnini. "However, also repulsive comments should be free and should stay out of tribunals. We have to fight so that everybody can say the silliest things, above all in Italy where there is a growing feeling of intolerance that I really don't like."

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