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As the faithful fill churches during Holy Week, a wave of clerical sex abuse revelations is sweeping Europe. The latest come from Italy, on the doorstep of the Vatican. Pope Benedict is under increasing pressure to respond to the most serious crisis of his papacy.
NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Rome.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Following weeks of media coverage of sex abuse by priests in the U.S., Ireland and Germany, three middle-aged Italian men had the courage to appear on national TV last week. Due to their speaking disabilities, an actor readout their painful affidavits.
Unidentified Man: (Italian spoken)
POGGIOLI: Sixty-one-year-old Gianni Bisoli entered a Catholic institute for the deaf in Verona at the age of nine. He described how he was subjected to three years of sexual abuse. And he listed the abusers' first names, many of whom are still serving as priests.
Unidentified Man: Don Giuseppe, Don Arrigo, Don Aliardo(ph), Don Giovanni...
POGGIOLI: Bisoli described how he was often taken to the home of the local bishop, who used him as a sexual toy.
Unidentified Man: Monsignor Giuseppe (Bleep)...
POGGIOLI: The network bleeped out the bishop's last name.
A total of 67 former students of the same institute for the deaf had signed similar affidavits last year. Their story was briefly in the news, but quickly swept under the rug.
Robert Mickens, Vatican correspondent for the British Catholic weekly The Tablet, says that was possible thanks to a long-entrenched code of silence.
Mr. ROBERT MICKENS (Vatican Correspondent, The Tablet): Up until now, the hierarchy in this country has been very, very powerful with the press, with the courts, in society in general, that theyve only had to, you know, flex their authority and their friends would help make things go away.
POGGIOLI: In the last decade, 80 Italian priests have been found guilty of sex abuse. But analysts believe the real number is much higher, and that the latest allegations just might trigger a wave of more revelations.
The Diocese of Bolzano, where other cases emerged this month, has set up a hotline to allow more victims to come forward. It's the first such initiative in Italy, where associations of victims of sex abuse by priests are just now being formed.
Roberto Mirabile, president of an association that works on behalf of pedophilia victims, says cases of sex abuse by priests are known to have occurred in at least 30 Italian towns. But he acknowledges that victims hesitate to go public because they do not feel protected by civil authorities.
Mr. ROBERTO MIRABILE (President, La Caramella Buona): (Through translator) Apologies are not sufficient. The church has to admit that the real problem is the code of silence and hypocrisy, not the individual pedophile priest. The problem is the silence of those bishops who transferred priests to other parishes to save the church's reputation.
POGGIOLI: The Vatican has gone on the defensive. Its official daily accused the international media of waging a smear campaign against the pope.
Pope BENEDICT XVI: (Italian spoken)
POGGIOLI: During his Palm Sunday Mass, Benedict made no direct mention of the crisis, but said cryptically that Jesus Christ guides the faithful toward the courage that doesn't let us be intimidated by petty gossip.
Emboldened by the new European revelations of clerical sex abuse and scrutiny of Benedict's handling of past cases, lawsuits in Oregon and Kentucky are seeking to depose the pope and his closest aides, in order to show that U.S. bishops are employees of the Holy See and that the Vatican is therefore responsible for their failure to report abuse to civil authorities.
The plaintiffs' lawyers point to a 1962 Vatican document that describes how bishops should deal with abuse of minors by priests and how abusers can be forgiven.
Texas lawyer Daniel Shea first learned of the document when it was referred to in a letter written by the future Pope Benedict. He considers it the smoking gun.
Mr. DANIEL SHEA (Attorney): We have obstruction of justice. This demonstrates with absolute certainty that the church considers the absolution of a priest who's abused a child to be part of the course and scope of the bishop's employment. These are crimes against humanity.
POGGIOLI: Vatican lawyers plan to argue that Pope Benedict has immunity as a head of state. But lawyers of sex abuse victims, from Germany to Australia, have said they also will cite the Vatican documents in similar court cases in their countries.
Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.