Vatican abuse trial: Witness testimony gives conflicting view of victim, pre-seminary

CNA 551c2a08da4ff 52047 View of St. Peter`s Basilica from the roof of the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross on April 1, 2015./ Bohumil Petrik/CNA.

As the trial for alleged abuse inside a Vatican youth seminary continues, witnesses have given different views on the characters of the victim and the accused, and of the institution’s culture.

In a hearing May 12, the Vatican City State’s criminal court heard testimony from five witnesses, four of whom were students at the pre-seminary at the time the alleged abuse took place.

Located inside Vatican City State, the Pius X pre-seminary is a residence for about a dozen boys aged 12 to 18 who serve at papal Masses and other liturgies in St. Peter’s Basilica and are considering the priesthood.

The alleged victim, a 28-year-old identified only as L.G., has testified that beginning when he was 13 years old, while he was a student at the pre-seminary, he was sexually assaulted over a period of six years by a fellow student, the defendant Fr. Gabriele Martinelli.

Martinelli has defended his innocence of the charges, calling the accusations against him “unfounded” and intended to “strike” at the pre-seminary. Martinelli was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Como in 2017.

The pre-seminary’s former rector, 72-year-old Fr. Enrico Radice, is also on trial on charges of impeding investigations into the abuse allegations against Martinelli, which he denies.

In the latest hearing, which began last year, witnesses who knew both the victim and defendant at the time of the alleged abuse testified to not having directly witnessed any abuse, even though several had at times, for periods of up to two years, shared a room with L.G.

One witness, Andrea Garzola, claimed that Martinelli once strongly touched his genitals when a game they were playing devolved into a fight. But he said that he did not think it was a “sexual advance.”

The same witness described Martinelli as being commanding and very close to the rector. He also said that he heard rumors about sexual actions between students and that one student, Kamil Jarzembowski, told him the rumors were about Martinelli.

Jarzembowski, who is from Poland, was the first to go to the media about the accusations against Martinelli, which were initially reported by the Italian investigative news program “Le Iene” in 2017.

Jarzembowski testified to the Vatican court in a March hearing that when he was roommates with L.G., he had heard Martinelli come into the room and perform non-consensual sexual actions with L.G. “tens of times.”

In his pre-trial testimony, Garzola had declared to have been told by Jarzembowski specifically that Martinelli was abusing L.G. But at the trial, Garzola denied the statement, saying: “I do not recognize those words.”

Another witness, who asked to be identified only by his initials because he will soon be ordained a priest, said he was a friend of the alleged victim, who told him he was abused by Martinelli at night.

“I had a friendship with L.G., it seems hard to me to think that he lied to me,” M.B. said.

M.B. testified that L.G. did not seem afraid of Martinelli and that there was conversation between the two of them.

Thomas Compagnoni, who was several years younger than L.G., said that the alleged victim had strongly encouraged him to attend the pre-seminary and that during his time there, he had never heard of any kind of abuse.

Fr. Francesco Vicini, a former student at the pre-seminary and now its vice-rector, was the fifth witness at the hearing.

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He said that he shared a room with L.G. and Martinelli for a year, and for two years in total with L.G.

Vicini claimed that L.G. and Martinelli “fought about everything, L.G. was absolutely not afraid of Martinelli, he was not one to remain silent if he did not agree about something he would make himself heard.”

“I take it for granted that Martinelli did nothing, it seems obvious to me that he never needed to ask for clarification on rumors that were circulating in the pre-seminary,” Vicini said.

In pre-trial testimony given in 2018, Vicini had also claimed that L.G. was calm when he started at the youth seminary but that his demeanor changed as the years progressed.

“He had shown great jealousy towards Martinelli, for the role that Gabriele [Martinelli] held,” he said.

“Martinelli has a dominant character, but I respect him,” Vicini added at the time.

At a hearing in February, three different former students of the Pius X pre-seminary had testified that there was an unhealthy culture of ridicule and abuse of power while they were there.

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The witnesses also alleged that reports of sexual abuse were ignored or dismissed by authority figures, including the cardinal in charge of St. Peter’s Basilica at the time, Cardinal Angelo Comastri.

At the February hearing, the Pius X pre-seminary was described by the former students as an environment with “psychological pressures,” where it was common to hear “homosexual jokes” and other lewd comments. Martinelli was described as having a “dominant role, very strong,” and a “homosexual demeanor.”

L.G. was described by one witness as “extremely credible,” but a bit delicate because of a difficult family situation.

One witness testified that Martinelli and L.G. seemed to hate each other and never speak, but that Martinelli also gave L.G. and another student special favors, positing that Martinelli was motivated by fear of what they could reveal about him.

The pre-seminary is run by a religious group, the Opera Don Folci, which is overseen by the Diocese of Como in northern Italy.

The next hearing of the abuse trial, which will include testimony from five more witnesses, will take place on June 7.