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Pope’s commission against minor abuse to train bishops

The Vatican said Friday its anti-sexual abuse commission would work more closely with its evangelization branch in order to better protect minors, including training bishops from dioceses far from Rome.

St Peter's Square Vatican
Pope Francis has vowed a zero-tolerance stance on abuse and has changed the law so that suspected cases must be reported. Photo by Gabriella Clare Marino on Unsplash

Pope Francis set up the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors in 2014 to fight clerical sex abuse, which will now collaborate with the Vatican’s Dicastery for Evangelization, according to the three-year agreement.

The commission has come under fire recently after its most influential member, Hans Zollner, quit in March, accusing the body of urgent problems related to compliance, accountability and transparency.

The agreement announced Friday calls for the commission to work together with the Dicastery in training sessions for newly appointed bishops, among other collaborative measures.

In an interview with Vatican News, the head of the commission, US Cardinal Sean O’Malley, said the group would conduct outreach to dioceses to help “develop programs, to be able to receive victims and have a pastoral care for them.”

Regarding the training of new bishops, who are all brought to Rome for such instruction, he said, “If we had had the opportunity to hear about safeguarding, and understand, the history of the church would have been different.”

“We always try and take a survivor, a victim with us so that the new bishops can hear firsthand just how dramatic the effect of this terrible crime has been on their lives,” O’Malley added.

Francis had asked the commission to work with bishops, to ensure “they have the capacity to be able to accompany the victims and to work with them.”

Communication

The head of the evangelisation dicastery, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, told Vatican News that one challenge for his department involved communicating laws and guidelines imposed by the Vatican to those in other regions.

“My impression is [that] the guidelines are clear for those of us who have been formed in a particular culture, and we tend to presume that what is clear to us is clear to other people now,” he said.

Zollner was the last remaining founding member of the commission to protect minors, where problems emerged just three years after it was established.

Abuse survivor Marie Collins resigned in 2017, saying the group faced fierce resistance within high echelons of the church.

Francis has vowed a zero-tolerance stance on abuse and has changed the law so that suspected cases must be reported, but victims’ associations say he still has not gone far enough.

The pope has recently tried to strengthen the commission by making it part of the Vatican office that processes clergy sex abuse cases.

Asked by Vatican News to respond to criticism of the commission, O’Malley said that at the body’s founding in 2014 there were “unrealistic expectations as to what this group of volunteers would be able to do to solve all the problems of sexual abuse in the Church and the world.”

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CRIME

American convicted of killing Italian police officer granted house arrest

An Italian appeals court on Monday granted house arrest to one of two American men convicted of killing an Italian police officer in Rome while on a teenage summer holiday in 2019.

American convicted of killing Italian police officer granted house arrest

Gabriel Natale-Hjorth will serve the remainder of his recently reduced 11-year sentence at his grandparents’ home in Fregene, outside Rome, after the appeals court agreed to the defence’s request, his lawyer Fabio Alonzi said.

Natale-Hjorth, now 23, was found guilty in May 2021 along with his friend Finnegan Elder for the fatal stabbing of policeman Mario Cerciello Rega during a late-night encounter in Rome.

Both Elder, who was 19 at the time of the killing, and Natale-Hjorth, then 18, were sentenced to life in prison, a punishment their lawyers denounced as harsher than those given for premeditated mafia killings.

In 2022, the defendants saw their sentences reduced to 24 years for Elder, who wielded the knife during the attack, and 22 years for Natale-Hjorth, who helped his friend hide the weapon afterwards.

From the beginning, the case offered up two very different versions about what happened in the moments just before Elder stabbed Cerciello with an 11-inch (28-centimetre) camping knife on a dark Rome street.

While the prosecution’s star witness, Cerciello’s partner Andrea Varriale, testified that the officers were suddenly attacked, the teens said the two men in plain clothes jumped them from behind and did not identify themselves as police or show their badges.

The Americans claimed self-defence, saying they thought the men were drug dealers, following their botched attempt to buy drugs earlier in the evening.

Italy’s highest court ordered a retrial in 2023.

Earlier this month, the appeals court re-examining the case re-sentenced Elder to 15 years in prison and Natale-Hjorth to 11 years.

READ ALSO: Italian court cuts sentences of Americans convicted of killing police officer

Under Italian law, the court has up to 90 days to publish its reasoning for the resentencing.

“Remember [Natale-Hjorth] has already served five years in prison,” Alonzi told AFP.

On Monday, a lawyer for Cerciello’s widow, Massimo Ferrandino, said his client Rosamaria was “filled with a profound sense of mistrust” over the court’s decision.

The case horrified Italy and led to an outpouring of public grief for the newlywed Cerciello, who was hailed as a national hero.

But the trial also revealed multiple examples of police error, including the blindfolding of Natale-Hjorth while in custody.

The officer who blindfolded him was later handed a two-month suspended sentence.

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