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Podcast unravels cover-up, negligence in Italy abuse case

The seven-episode series developed by three Italian journalists was unveiled at a press conference in Rome on March 11
Father Giuseppe Rugolo was convicted on March 5 by an Italian court on charges of aggravated sexual assault against minors.

Father Giuseppe Rugolo was convicted on March 5 by an Italian court on charges of aggravated sexual assault against minors. (Photo: canalesicilia.it)

Published: March 14, 2024 05:21 AM GMT
Updated: March 14, 2024 05:26 AM GMT

A survivor of clergy sexual abuse said he hopes a new podcast detailing his case will shed light on the uphill battle victims in Italy face when seeking justice from the Catholic Church.

The podcast, titled "La Confessione" (The Confession) and premiering March 13, highlights the case of Antonio Messina, who at 16 was abused by Father Giuseppe Rugolo, a priest of the southern Italian Diocese of Piazza Armerina, as well as the attempt by church authorities to silence Messina. The abuse occurred when the priest was a seminarian.

The seven-episode series was unveiled at a press conference in Rome on March 11. It was developed by three Italian journalists who covered the case -- Federica Tourn, Giorgio Meletti, and Stefano Feltri.

Father Rugolo was convicted on March 5 by an Italian court on charges of aggravated sexual assault against minors and was sentenced to more than four years in prison and barred from teaching and holding public office.

The court also found the Diocese of Piazza Armerina, led by Bishop Rosario Gisana, civilly liable after testimony and secret recordings proved that the bishop admitted to covering up Father Rugolo's crimes and attempted to pay off Messina for his silence.

"I hope that this will not only be useful for people to shake their consciences a little bit because you see in the somewhat smaller towns, people have a hard time believing certain things. But I hope it can also be a wake-up call to the church authorities," the now 30-year-old Messina told OSV News on March 11.

During the press conference, Tourn recounted Messina's harrowing story which began when he first met then-seminarian Rugolo at age 14. The future priest led the youth ministry at St. John the Baptist Church in Enna, located in the heart of Sicily.

Messina was conflicted about his vocation as well as his sexual orientation and sought counsel from the seminarian who assured him that what he was going through was normal for young people to grapple with at his age.

Now-Father Rugolo would place "himself on the same level as young people," Tourn explained. "So one can see that a slow, psychological manipulation began; a manipulation that victims of abuse know all too well because sexual abuse doesn't happen right away. First, there is a whole long preparation."

The seminarian's emotional manipulation, she continued, laid the groundwork for abusing Messina two years later in 2009 during a summer camp for young people and continued for four years.

Father Rugolo was ordained in 2014, and after finally distancing himself from the cleric, Messina told his parents, who then decided to inform the church. However, their search for justice turned into a 10-year struggle against church authorities who wanted to sweep the allegations under the rug

Messina and his parents decided to speak about now-Father Rugolo's abuse with their pastor, Msgr. Pietro Spina, who, instead of referring the allegations to church or local authorities, decided to contact Father Rugolo and, according to Tourn, "sided with the priest."

Seeing that nothing was happening, Messina spoke with Msgr. Vincenzo Murgano, vicar general of the Piazza Armerina Diocese, and requested to speak with Bishop Gisana to inform him of the abuse. Instead, Messina said Msgr. Murgano told him not to speak to the bishop and recommended he leave the city and forget about what happened.

Messina and his parents persisted and informed Bishop Gisana, who met with them only twice within the span of four years. However, unbeknown to Bishop Gisana, Messina's parents secretly recorded the conversations with the bishop.

The recordings, which were played during Father Rugolo's trial, revealed that Bishop Gisana informed the parents that the accused priest would be sent away for a brief period and would return to the diocese. He also said the accused priest would be assigned to lead St. Cataldo Church, a prominent parish in the diocese.

To the disdain of Messina and his parents, Bishop Gisana then offered to pay them 25,000 euros (US $27,361) in cash, telling them the money would be taken from the diocesan Caritas fund and the expense would be labeled as a "scholarship."

Messina refused the bishop's offer and approached Pierluisa Rizza, a journalist for the Italian news agency ANSA, to tell his story. With her help, Messina wrote a letter to Pope Francis.

However, after his letter to the pope went unanswered, Messina decided to go public with his accusations and later, reported the abuse to the police in 2020. Two other minors abused by now-Father Rugolo surfaced during the initial investigation.

Once the accusations were made public, Bishop Gisana decided to transfer Father Rugolo to the northern Italian Archdiocese of Ferrara, where he not only continued to serve as a priest, but also ministered to young people.

After their investigation, police arrested the accused priest in 2021 on charges of aggravated sexual assault of a minor as well as possesion of child pornography on his personal computer.

The trial against Father Rugolo was notable for the fact that recordings made by the accused priest during private conversations with Bishop Gisana were made public.

Father Rugolo provided the secret recordings in an attempt to prove his innocence. Instead, they offered an in-depth look at how church authorities in Italy often view and handle accusations of abuse.

During the press conference, portions of the recordings were played for journalists, including one in which the Italian bishop outright admits to covering up the abuse.

In one conversation, recorded after Father Rugolo was transferred to Ferrara, Bishop Gisana expresses his sympathy for the priest, assuring him that due to the investigation, "all the prerequisites are there for you to become a saint."

In another, also referring to the abuse investigation, the Italian bishop said he hoped that the Lord would help "stop this demonic impetus."

"The problem here now is not only yours," Bishop Gisana told Father Rugolo. "The problem is also mine because I covered this up."

The podcast detailing the abuse suffered by Messina at the hands of "Don Rugolo" highlights a problem not just for the Catholic Church in Italy and its handling of sexual abuse cases. It also raises questions on how Pope Francis handles reports of cover-ups that occur in his metaphorical "backyard."

Despite the fact that Bishop Gisana admitted in the recordings that he covered up the abuse allegations against Father Rugolo, he still leads the Diocese of Piazza Armerina. Also concerning is that despite the recordings being made public, Pope Francis has gone as far as to publicly defend the bishop.

During an audience Nov. 6, 2023, with a group from the Little House of Mercy of Gela, an association that serves the poor in the Diocese of Piazza Armerina, the pope praised the bishop as a "just man."

"I greet Bishop Rosario Gisana of Piazza Armerina: He is good, this bishop, good. He was persecuted, slandered, yet he stood firm, always, (he is) just, a just man."

Messina told OSV News he was disappointed by the pope's defense of the bishop and hoped that it was because he "is unaware of the many things that emerged from the trial."

He also said he hopes to one day meet with Pope Francis and "ask him to listen to me."

"I would really like to tell him firsthand what I have experienced and make sure that he actually evaluates what has happened," Messina said. "That is what I would like to do because, unfortunately, I was very disappointed that I never received a response (from my letter) and never saw any action from him."

Since making his abuse public, Messina said he was contacted by two other young people who were abused and were inspired to also report their abuse to local authorities.

"It's a tragic story for these boys who felt alone and found, maybe in my story, some sort of comfort and a way to talk about it," he told OSV News.

"I think this my duty: to give them an opportunity to talk about it, also with those who are on this path because it is not easy to find the strength to face all of this after so many years."

Tourn hopes the case would become Italy's "Spotlight" moment, in reference to the Boston Globe investigative unit -- called "Spotlight" -- that unveiled the 2002 sex abuse scandal in the Archdioceses of Boston.

"We hope it will be Italy's 'Spotlight,' and we hope that the voice of the victims will be finally listened to, breaking the church's silence," she said.

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