London -- Monday April 9, 2007
Pope 'did not help girls abused by Florence priest'
By Peter Popham in Rome
"How much suffering there is in the world!" Pope Benedict XVI lamented in his Easter sermon yesterday, naming Darfur, Iraq, Somalia, the Congo, Lebanon and other trouble spots around the globe.
But there was no space in his list for the abused women of the parish of Regina della Pace ("Queen of Peace") on the outskirts of Florence. For more than three years, these women have been trying to persuade the Church to take vigorous action against a parish priest whom they say persuaded them to have sex with him when they were minors, and continued to do so regularly for years.
Confronted by their testimony, the church authorities first transferred the priest to another parish, and then out of the diocese. But he remains a priest, and has received only token punishment. In the United States, failure to take firm action against abusive priests left the Church in Boston with a legacy of bitter mistrust and legal bills totalling more than $150m (£76m). In Italy, however, it would appear that the lessons have not been learnt.
Fr Lelio Cantini, now in his eighties, became the parish priest of Regina della Pace in the mid-Seventies. A self-styled "charismatic", he was accompanied by a clairvoyant woman who had visions of Jesus and drew up lists of those parishioners whom she said were the "elect of God".
Don Lelio ruled the parish with an iron hand, banishing dissidents from Mass and forbidding them absolution. But, in private, he showed a different side: in the church's presbytery he induced girls as young as 10 to have sex with him, explaining that this was a way of attaining "total unity with God".
A woman of 45, married with two children, said she had suppressed all memory of the abuse the priest inflicted on her until a couple of years ago. It started, she explained, when she was aged 10. "The Prior [as Cantini insisted on being called] would call me into his office or his bedroom, get me to undress and explain that, by doing what he asked, I would realise the most complete eucharistic communion," she said.
"He told me to think of the Madonna, who bore Jesus when she was only 12. He said I was the Beloved of the Song of Songs and that what happened between us was the same as what happened in the Garden of Eden." She said the relationship continued for 15 years, and that remembering it even now caused her vomiting attacks. "I was absolutely incapable," she said, "of making a free and aware choice."
Another woman, identified by the initials D A, now in her forties, said her sexual liaison with Fr Cantini "began when I was 17 and continued until I got married. He said I was in need of affection and that he would give it to me. Then he embraced me in the name of Jesus."
The victims kept their memories to themselves until chance reunions prompted them to share their stories and take them to the curia of Florence, the governing body of the church in the city, in January 2004.
They made written and oral submissions to the Archbishop of Florence and others - with the sole result that, in September 2005, Fr Cantini was transferred to another parish "for reasons of health".
Disgusted by the failure to take their complaints seriously, the victims wrote to Pope Benedict in March 2006 demanding more serious action. In response, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, then head of the Italian Bishops' Conference, informed them that Fr Cantini had left the diocese.
Further pressure led to disciplinary measures: Fr Cantini was banned from hearing confession or celebrating Mass for five years, "and every day for one year he must recite Psalm 51" - the one that begins, "Have mercy upon me, O God ... Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity." The victims say they regard the disciplinary measures "with astonishment and pain".
La Repubblica newspaper reports that Fr Cantini is living in a town on the Tuscan coast, still accompanied by his mysterious "clairvoyant" and with a troop of followers. Those who say he made their lives a misery say they will bring him to justice.