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First Vatican sexual abuse trial absolves a former altar boy who served the pope

Gabriele Martinelli (far right) holds a missal in front of Pope Francis on March 14, 2013, during the newly elected pontiff’s first Mass inside the Sistine Chapel. (Vatican Media)
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VATICAN CITY — The Vatican’s first sexual abuse trial concluded Wednesday with judges absolving a former altar boy who served the pope, saying that Gabriele Martinelli had engaged in a sexual relationship with a slightly younger peer while living in the city-state but that there was no evidence of coercion.

The court found evidence of another crime — corruption of a minor — but said that the statute of limitations had expired.

A rector who had been accused of coverup, the Rev. Enrico Radice, 72, was also acquitted.

The Vatican’s determinations marked the closure of a year-long trial that examined one of the Catholic Church’s most unusual alleged abuse cases. In this instance, the abuse was said to have taken place between 2006 and 2012 inside a Vatican palazzo, a residence for preteens and teens — many with priestly aspirations — who served as altar boys during papal Masses.

A teen was accused of abuse inside Vatican City. Powerful church figures helped him become a priest.

Numerous Vatican higher-ups, including Pope Francis, had received written warnings of a potential crime starting in 2013. But the Vatican brought indictments against Martinelli and Radice only six years later — after a wave of Italian media coverage. By then, Martinelli had been ordained.

A Washington Post investigation earlier this year detailed how Martinelli, now 29, had risen to the priesthood — with the help of prelates who brushed off the initial accusations and conducted only a cursory investigation.

The Vatican tribunal on Wednesday pinpointed one of the leaders in that initial probe, Bishop Diego Coletti, as having responded to the claims in an “absolutely superficial manner,” so as to “reach a quick dismissal.” Radice had worked with Coletti during that inquiry, the Vatican tribunal said, but could face no punishment because of the statute of limitations.

Coletti was never indicted. The tribunal said in its statement that he is “gravely ill.”

The trial broke new ground for the church, where abuse accusations have generally been dealt with behind closed doors or in canonical trials, where offenders can be defrocked or ordered to a life of prayer and penitence. But in this case, because the alleged abuse took place within the city-state’s territory, the Vatican prosecutors had the opportunity to pursue criminal charges. Pope Francis, in 2019, wrote a special provision that allowed the trial to go forward.

Martinelli and Radice denied any wrongdoing. On the stand, Martinelli said the claims were without merit, stemming from jealousies and internal divisions within the St. Pius X Pre-Seminary, as the facility is known.

The warnings about the alleged abuse sent to Vatican higher-ups came foremost from the alleged victim and his onetime roommate, Kamil Jarzembowski. But, during the trial, other altar boys said they had witnessed no abuse.

“The others never saw or heard anything,” said Rita Claudia Baffioni, the lawyer for Martinelli. She said that if a sexual relationship had taken place, there was “absolutely no violence,” and it had occurred before Martinelli was a priest.

Dario Imparato, the lawyer for the alleged victim, said the trial had hinged on the issue of consent — and the ability of the court to recognize a power gap between Martinelli and the alleged victim.

While they were only seven months apart in age, Martinelli held a first-among-peers role within the youth seminary and was responsible for selecting which other boys received the honor of serving next to the pope during Masses. The alleged victim testified that Martinelli had leveraged that power for sex — and he had felt powerless to speak up or fight back.

Imparato said the Vatican court failed to recognize the power dynamic, and drew a parallel to Harvey Weinstein, the convicted sex offender whose case helped jump-start the MeToo movement.

“Weinstein wouldn’t use chains or whips or ropes to gain sexual favors from his victims,” Imparato said. “It was enough for him to say, ‘Do you want to make a movie? Do you want to stay in the loop?’ That is exactly what happened here. This has to do with consent.”

Imparato said he would appeal the decision.

Martinelli and Radice could also face trial in an Italian court: Roman prosecutors have indicted them on similar charges to those that they faced in the Vatican, on the grounds that both are Italian citizens. Imparato said he hoped that the Italian court would assess the question of consent differently than the Vatican judges had.

Martinelli, while attending the youth seminary, had been a fixture in St. Peter’s Basilica and at gatherings of church royalty. He’d even stood directly in front of Pope Francis, holding a missal, during the newly elected pontiff’s first Mass inside the Sistine Chapel.

Following the initial abuse claims, church officials continued to help Martinelli along, sending him to a seminary in Rome. He was subjected to an unusual psychiatric evaluation, aimed at teasing out any problematic behaviors, but it did not raise any flags.

Following his ordination, in 2017, he served as a priest in a mountainous area of northern Italy. But he lasted there only months. After two Italian media reports disclosed the accusations the Vatican had been aware of privately for years, Martinelli told parishioners he was going on a spiritual retreat. He was barred from contact with minors.

All the while, the Diocese of Como — which oversees the priestly association to which Martinelli belongs — began reinvestigating the case. In a document shared with the Vatican, the diocese called the alleged victim’s accusations “reliable” and “coherent” and said church investigators were “intimately convinced that Martinelli had inappropriate sexual conduct.” But they remained unsure about whether Martinelli had “raped through coercion.”

“[The accuser] was certainly a victim of sexually inappropriate behavior, harmful of his intimate sphere, by Martinelli, but without a real physical coercion,” the diocese had concluded.

Martinelli has been living quietly in a Como nursing home operated by the Opera don Folci, his priest association. Baffioni said it would be up to the Diocese of Como to determine Martinelli’s next step in his career.

“I think he’s already on his way” to Como, Baffioni said. “He’ll have a chance to talk to the bishop. It all depends on the hierarchy.”