The dome of St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican

Altar boy sex abuse scandal explodes just steps from Pope’s door

A scandal involving the sexual abuse of former altar boys by priests inside Vatican walls is growing after Italian TV aired more allegations in a program Sunday night.

Driving the news

Le Iene, an investigative journalism program, set out accusations by three men that they were abused by two Vatican priests in the 1980s and 90s when they were aged between 10 and 14.

The alleged victims were students at the St. Pius X youth seminary, located in the Vatican just metres from the Casa Santa Marta, the hotel for priests where Pope Francis lives.

The seminary is home to a dozen boys between the ages of 11 and 18, who serve as altar boys at the Pope’s Masses.

The big picture

Last night’s Le Iene show was the second time the program has delved into the St. Pius X youth seminary.

Its first investigation in 2017 uncovered the first hard evidence of pedophilia within Vatican walls, as well as the first proof that Vatican priests, bishops and even a cardinal had covered up the case.

The 2017 Le Iene program led to a Vatican announcement in September this year that it was seeking the indictment on charges of child abuse of former seminarian and now priest Father Gabriele Martinelli, 28, and former seminary rector Father Enrico Radice.

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With regard to the new investigation, Le Iene journalist Gaetano Pecoraro said “we decided to keep digging as we had the feeling that the previous cases were not isolated”.

“There were more victims and more priests involved in sexual abuse within the Vatican”, added Pecoraro, one of the two authors of the new exposé.

Go deeper

In the new allegations aired last night on Le Ieneviewed in advance by The Guardian – one of the alleged victims, now aged in their 30s and 40s, claimed a priest tried to remove his bathrobe in the seminary showers.

“He wanted to undress me”, the victim said.

“I tried to wriggle away. I was 13 years old. I fell to the ground and asked him ‘what are you doing?’. I then got up and ran away”.

A second victim alleged he was abused by a priest in the Casa Santa Marta when he was 10 or 11 years old.

“He asked me to go upstairs to his room, made me sit on his legs, began to stroke my thigh and then put a hand on my private parts”, that second victim said, adding that the priest continued even when he asked him to stop.

A third victim made similar claims as the first detail, but refused to go into detail for the program.

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All three survivors said a fourth boy had suffered worse abuse than they had in the youth seminary, but that fourth boy refused to talk to Le Iene.

Elements of each of the testimonies were corroborated on the program by other witnesses.

Why it matters

Le Iene managed to locate one of the priests named in the new allegations, who was startled to have been confronted by the journalists.

“No, it’s not possible. I can’t remember … I’m not saying they’re lying, I’m saying they have misunderstood”, the accused priest told the show, his face blurred in the program broadcast.

Despite the accused priest’s defensiveness, the AP – which also saw the program ahead of time – noted that the impression given by the program “is that of a closed, religious atmosphere in which sexualized touching and groping were normalized for boys as young as 11”.

For the record

In response to enquiries by journalists, the Vatican said in a statement that a decision on the indictment of the men involved in the original 2017 sex abuse case in the youth seminary was “imminent”.

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It added that if new information came to light “involving further offences by the accused or by others, the judicial authorities of the state of the Vatican City will proceed with the opening of a new file of documents and, following preliminary investigation, with a new request for a trial”.

The Opera Don Folchi, the small Italian religious order that runs the youth, seminary, described the latest allegations as “mud”, a “violent attack on the church” and simply “calumny and falsifications”.

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