ROME -- U.S. and Italian advocates for victims of pedophile priests are pressing for Italy to overhaul legislation that allows bishops to dodge accountability for predator clergy in the predominantly Roman Catholic country where the church wields considerable political influence.
A U.S. state legislator joined an Italian lawmaker and American and Italian victims of pedophile clergy at the Italian Parliament on Thursday to put a spotlight on what they described as significant gaps in how the Italian justice system handles the problem.
Francesco Zanardi, who heads an Italian survivors' advocacy group, said Italy must revise its 1929 Lateran Treaty with the Holy See. He noted that under that agreement, bishops can refuse to respond to magistrates investigating their alleged roles in hiding pedophile crimes by priests.
Thus, as long as they personally are not being investigated for abuse, bishops "have the right to refuse to answer questions from the judiciary," Zanardi told a news conference in the Chamber of Deputies, Parliament's lower house.
The same treaty, he noted, also requires magistrates to inform church hierarchy they have started investigations of priests, effectively giving bishops more time to possibly discourage witnesses or victims from coming forward.
Italian law doesn't require bishops to denounce cases of abuse by clergy, Zanardi said.
"There is a legislative vacuum," he said.
The Catholic church holds a privileged place in Italian society and wields significant influence in politics. Parishes in small towns and big cities alike run after-school and weekend recreation programs for youngsters, since public schools don't offer them. That gives priests easy access to minors.
A U.S. advocate for accountability for pedophile priests noted that the American Catholic church was forced to "be more transparent" after victims came forward as adults when several states opened windows on statutes of limitations. That nudged U.S. bishops to adopt a "zero tolerance" policy toward abusive priests.
But the Italian church still allows itself to be guided by canon law, which "gives the priest a second chance" and "leaves it to the bishop's discretion" on whether a priest should be punished or removed from children, said Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of BishopAccountability.org.
Earlier this month, Italy was taken to task by the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child for its failure to properly police the Catholic church . The committee called for an independent inquiry into what it said was the abnormally low number of investigations and prosecutions of child sex abuse committed by priests.
With priests considered respected figures in Italian society, the words of Pennsylvania state Rep. Mark Rozzi sounded unusually blunt when he told how he was raped by a priest when he was 13, and how every time he showers, he still shudders at that memory.
As he has campaigned in his home state, Rozzi urged Italian lawmakers to open up windows of opportunity in statutes of limitations so adults can denounce abuse suffered as children.
Rozzi drew on his own experience when he wondered aloud whether a 13-year-old would know what is meant by a statute of limitations.
Zanardi said only one pedophile priest is now in prison, out of 144 convictions in the last 10 years. Italian judges tend to let convicted clergy serve sentences under house arrest, he said.
Unlike in the United States, "in Italy, the scandals haven't done anything," Zanardi said.
He and Rozzi embraced in a symbolic joining of forces to change that.
Frances D'Emilio is on twitter at www.twitter.com/fdemilio.