Church, deaf students square off on Italian TV

Rome, Italy - Three deaf men who say they were repeatedly sodomized and abused by priests as children confronted the church diocese Friday about why it hadn't punished their abusers, saying they want justice.

The three men, first interviewed last year by The Associated Press, appeared on a prime-time talk show on Italy's state-run RAI television, squaring off with the spokesman of the Verona diocese amid a swirling global sex abuse scandal that has inched closer to Pope Benedict XVI.

The former students haven't gone to the police because the 10-year statute of limitations expired. They have asked the priests in question to waive the statute of limitations so a case can be opened, but to date none of them have.

Their stories have found new relevance after revelations that the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith - then led by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now pope - told Wisconsin bishops in 1998 to shut down a church trial for an elderly priest who allegedly molested 200 deaf boys.

The Wisconsin and Italy cases are eerily similar in that they both involve the purported abuse of deaf children, particularly vulnerable victims to abuse since the admonition "never tell" is easily enforced as many have speech impairments.

The spokesman of the Verona diocese, the Rev. Bruno Fasani, said he hoped Friday's confrontation would be constructive and he welcomed meeting the men for the first time. But the former students of Verona's Antonio Provolo Institute for the Deaf refused to shake his hand during the show.

One of the three, Dario Laiti, 59, said he couldn't bring himself to greet the prelate.

"It's a problem of justice," said Laiti, who has said he was sodomized repeatedly at the boarding school from the age of seven. Earlier in the day, in an interview with Associated Press Television News, Laiti said he wanted his abusers kicked out of the church.

"We want justice for everything we went through, the suffering for all of our life," said Gianni Bisoli, 61, another former student who says he was sodomized by and forced to perform oral sex on a dozen priests at the institute.

Bisoli, Laiti and 65 other former pupils signed a statement last year saying sexual abuse, pedophilia and corporal punishment occurred at the school from the 1950s to the 1980s.

While not all acknowledged being victims, 14 of the 67 wrote statements and made videotapes, detailing abuse they suffered, some for years, at the hands of priests and brothers of the Congregation for the Company of Mary. They named 24 priests, brothers and lay religious men. Bisoli also accused the late bishop of Verona of assaulting him.

The current bishop of Verona, Monsignor Giuseppe Zenti, initially accused the former students of lying and trying to blackmail him because they were involved in a real estate dispute with the diocese. However, after one of the accused lay religious men admitted to sexual relations with students, the bishop ordered an internal investigation. It found some abuse occurred, albeit a fraction of what had been alleged.

Advocates for the victims, however, said the diocese investigation was fatally flawed because no one interviewed the former students.

Fasani insisted Friday that the diocese had no solid complaint with a named victim to go on from the former students. And he read what he said was a spontaneous declaration from one of the original student signatories saying he was pressured to sign the document alleging abuse.

The students' spokesman, Marco Lodi Rizzini, didn't address the pressure accusation. But he disputed that the diocese didn't know who they were. He said he personally had met twice with the bishop and other diocesan officials, had sent them letters, and that 53 former students had complained to the diocese of alleged abuse.

Regardless, Fasani said none of the priests the students had accused were in contact with children. When pressed how he knew that for sure, Fasani acknowledged he didn't know any of the men himself.

Last summer, the diocese forwarded its files to the Vatican office that prosecutes sex crimes by clergy, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It was headed for years by the Ratzinger, who issued a 2001 directive that requires bishops to report suspected clerical abuse cases to the Vatican, under secrecy, but makes no mention of calling police.

The Vatican studied the file but took no action until Feb. 15, when Cardinal William Levada instructed Zenti to interview the former students to determine if any action should be taken against the priests.