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Pope Benedict has invited the world's cardinals to a one-day summit today at the Vatican. They will be talking about how the Roman Catholic Church handled clerical sex abuse scandals, among other things.

Until now, most of the abuse cases getting attention have been in the United States and in northern Europe. But NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports that the cases are moving closer to the center of the church.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: A trial has been under way here for months. The defendant is a charismatic 55-year-old priest, Don Ruggero Conti, charged with molesting seven boys. At each hearing, many parents come to cheer the priest and show their support. Giovanna Baretta has known Don Conti for decades. She entrusted her son, now 30, to the priests care.

Ms. GIOVANNA BARETTA: (Through translator) We believe this is a conspiracy, a witch-hunt. Theyre slinging mud against an exceptional priest. Its all part of an attack against the church.

POGGIOLI: The atmosphere outside the courtroom is tense. The alleged victims, their lawyers and families, are escorted by the police. Death threats have been made against them and the presiding judge. The alleged victims, some as young as 13 at the time they said they were abused, have given detailed descriptions of sexual violence.

Mr. MATTEO MONGIU (Witness): (Foreign language spoken)

POGGIOLI: One witness, 24-year-old Matteo Mongiu, told the court that boys would often sleep at Contis home and that the priest would ask one of the boys to sleep with him in his room. Mongiu, now 24, testified that the priest never abused him, but said it annoyed him when Conti would fondle him and lick his ears.

According to alleged victims lawyers, the trial has already made history. They say its the first time an Italian bishop has taken the stand in such a case. Bishop Gino Reali, Contis direct supervisor, admitted he knew of the accusations made against Conti by numerous people two years before the arrest. Reali was visibly uncomfortable when he was asked why he did not stop Contis contact with children.

Bishop GINO REALI: (Through translator) I tried to stick to facts because I believed I needed to act based on facts, not rumors. Lots of rumors end up on my desk.

POGGIOLI: The Vatican requires bishops to inform the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith if an accusation has a semblance of truth. The Congregation then decides if a church trial is warranted. Reali testified he didnt think there was sufficient evidence.

The bishops testimony was one of the rare occasions in Italy where a high-ranking prelate has to answer to civic authorities. But the trial has received minimal coverage in the Italian media. This is a sign, Vatican watchers say, of the Holy Sees influence over everything that happens in whats known as the shadow of St. Peters dome.

Roberto Mirabile, president of an association that works on behalf of pedophile victims, laments that in Italy clerical sex abuse is still a taboo topic.

Mr. ROBERT MIRABILE: (Through translator) What we see is a very disconcerting mentality of a church hierarchy which still does not grasp the devastating effects of pedophile crimes on minors. This trial is proof of how much hypocrisy exists around this issue.

POGGIOLI: And yet continuing revelations of widening sex abuse scandals are beginning to have an impact even here. Not long after Realis testimony, the Italian Bishops Conference acknowledged that it's possible that its members covered up abuse. And it revealed that in the past decade 100 Italian priests have faced church trials for sexual abuse of minors. But no further information on the trials' outcome was made available.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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