Priest acquitted of sexual assault in Vatican’s first clergy abuse trial

The trial of Rev. Gabriele Martinelli for allegedly abusing an altar boy when both were under the age of 18, ended on 6 October 2021, when the Vatican tribunal (in effect, the Pope’s criminal court) acquitted the accused of some charges and found others could not be punished as they had allegedly occurred too long ago. The former rector of the seminary, the Rev. Enrico Radice, was held not to have tried to cover up the alleged abuse.

In a statement, the tribunal said it accepted that there was evidence of there being a sexual relationship between Martinelli (who was not ordained at the time) and the alleged victim, LG, but no proof that LG, who was just seven months younger, had been forced into that relationship.

The court found evidence of Martinelli having committed another crime — corruption of a minor — but said that limitation had expired.

The scandal over alleged abuse at the seminary, arose in 2017 when former altar boys went public with allegations of misconduct against Martinelli and an alleged cover-up by the seminary superiors. The accusations were severely embarrassing for Pope Francis who pledged that there would be “zero tolerance” for abuse, particularly as the acts allegedly occurred on Vatican territory.

The Vatican tribunal also pinpointed one of the leaders in that initial investigation, Bishop Diego Coletti, as having responded to the allegations in an “absolutely superficial manner,” so as to “reach a quick dismissal.”  Radice had worked with Coletti during that inquiry, but could face no punishment because of the statute of limitations.  Coletti was not charged with any offence. The tribunal said in its statement that he is “gravely ill.”

Dario Imparato, the lawyer for the alleged victim, said the trial had hinged on the issue of consent — and whether  the court would recognize an imbalance of power between Martinelli and the alleged victim.  While they were only seven months apart in age, Martinelli was a respected leader amongst his peers at the seminary where the alleged abuse had taken place,  and was responsible for selecting which other boys received the honour of serving next to the Pope during Masses.  The alleged victim had said that Martinelli had used his standing at the seminary, in exchange for  sex — and he had felt powerless to refuse, or report it to superiors at the time. 

Imparato said the Vatican court failed to recognise the power dynamic, and drew a parallel to Harvey Weinstein and those he abused. He said he would appeal the decision.  It remains to be seen whether  Martinelli – who at present is living quietly in a nursing home operated by his priest association – will continue in active ministry or quietly retire from public clerical activities.


Written by James Chambers at BLM (james.chambers@blmlaw.com)

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