In the last decade, clerical sex abuse scandals involving Roman Catholic priests erupted in the United States as well as several European and Latin American countries. But in Italy, the issue never came to the surface and never made headlines. Now, in the Vatican's backyard, the veil of secrecy is beginning to lift.

More from NPR's Sylvia Poggioli in Rome.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: In St. Peter's Square, on Friday evening, the lights were on in the papal apartments. If Benedict XVI was standing close to the window, he would've heard the chanting below.

(Soundbite of protesters)

POGGIOLI: A banner proclaimed: Stop the Vatican Cover-Up, and a crowd of about 30 people demanded justice for the victims of clerical sex abuse. This was the final event of a day-long symposium on clerical sex abuse organized by the radical party on the premises of the Italian Parliament. It began with the screening of an American documentary, broadcast in January on PBS, by filmmaker Joe Cultrera about his brother Paul, a victim of clerical sex abuse.

Mr. PAUL CULTRERA (Former Altar Boy, Salem, Massachusetts): I remember the places where it happened. I remember the sun coming through the rectory window.

POGGIOLI: The story of Paul Cultrera who kept silent for 30 years resonated with the other participants. Marco Marchese is a 26-year-old from Agrigento in Sicily, who was abused by a priest for four years starting when he was 12.

Mr. MARCO MARCHESE: (Through translator) This American story is the story of all of us. At first, we think we're the guilty ones. It takes years, and only if you're lucky to find someone who believes you, can you heal. I just wanted to stop this man from hurting others and hoped the church would embrace me, but that embrace never came.

POGGIOLI: In fact, the local bishop filed charges against Marco for slandering the church. Ultimately, Marco prevailed and his abuser was convicted. He now helps victims like him, but says it's very difficult for them to come out into the open.

Mr. MARCHESE: (Through translator) We're not just in Italy. We're in the land of the Vatican. In small towns, it happens that when a priest is under investigation or in jail, people march through the streets with torches in his defense - not in defense of the victims.

POGGIOLI: Domenico Del Gaudio came from the southern region of Lucania. He said his 6-year-old daughter was sexually abused by a nun, but the tables have been turned against her family.

Mr. DOMENICO DEL GAUDIO: (Through translator) We were told we're hysterical, we're crazy, or we've been brainwashed. We've been attacked from all sides, not only by the church. Our mayor was furious, saying we stained the honor of our town with our accusations.

POGGIOLI: There are no statistics on the number of clerical sex abuse victims in Italy. Radical Party MP Maurizio Turco, the symposium organizer, said Italian legislation is murky.

Mr. MAURIZIO TURCO (Symposium Organizer; Radical Party MP): (Through translator) We have a state-church treaty that guarantees areas of impunity to Vatican officials, including bishops and priests. The average citizen who learns of a crime has to report it. Bishops and priests have a broader margin of movement.

POGGIOLI: A sign that clerical sex abuse is a taboo subject in Italy was last month's controversy over the broadcast of a BBC documentary on state-run TV. The broadcast was authorized only if it was followed by rebuttal by church officials.

Bishop Rino Fisichella, a rector of Rome's pontifical Lateran University, rejected accusations that the Vatican protects pedophile priests at the expense of their victims.

Bishop RINO FISICHELLA (Rector, Lateran University): (Through translator) Children are well protected by the Catholic Church and nobody has the right to give us lessons on this.

POGGIOLI: Little is known about Catholic Church investigations and canonical trials. Until six years ago, cases were handled in their dioceses. But in a 2001 letter to all bishops, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the current Pope Benedict, ordered that all sex-abuse cases be transferred to the Vatican. As theological watchdog, he also imposed total secrecy on the proceedings with the threat of excommunication for any violations.

Daniel Shea, an American lawyer who has defended many sex-abuse victims in U.S. courts, accuses the Vatican — and Joseph Ratzinger — of obstruction of justice.

Mr. DANIEL SHEA (Lawyer): This gives them the opportunity to take in silence the victim essentially, threaten the victim with hellfire for all eternity if they ever reveal what is going on in this transaction.

POGGIOLI: One Italian magazine says 1,000 sex-abuse cases have been reported to the Vatican, but only 10 have been investigated.

Mr. CULTRERA: (Italian spoken)

POGGIOLI: But Paul Cultrera says silence kills.

Mr. CULTRERA: I stayed silent for 30 years because they did such a good job at convincing me that it was all my fault, and that this couldn't have been something that a holy man had done to me.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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