By Alessandra Pieracci and Giacomo Galeazzi -
(GENOA) — The latest sex-abuse case to rock the Catholic Church is unfolding in the archdiocese of an influential Italian Cardinal who has been working with Pope Benedict XVI on reforms to respond to prior scandals of pedophile priests.
Father Riccardo Seppia, a 51-year-old parish priest in the village of Sastri Ponente, near Genoa, was arrested last Friday, May 13, on pedophilia and drug charges. Investigators say that in tapped mobile-phone conversations, Seppia asked a Moroccan drug dealer to arrange sexual encounters with young and vulnerable boys. "I do not want 16-year-old boys but younger. Fourteen-year-olds are O.K. Look for needy boys who have family issues," he allegedly said. Genoa Archbishop Angelo Bagnasco, who is the head of the Italian Bishops Conference, had been working with Benedict to establish a tough new worldwide policy, released this week, on how bishops should handle accusations of priestly sex abuse. (Read "Vatican Gets Tough on Child Abuse but Not Tough Enough.)
Bagnasco said that when he met the Pope this weekend, he "asked for a particular blessing for my archdiocese" in light of the alleged crimes, adding that "like every father toward a son [feels] great pain in seeing a priest who is not faithful to his vocation."
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi praised Bagnasco's handling of the Sastri Ponente case, lauding its "timeliness and competence." On Saturday, May 14, the Cardinal visited the Santo Spirito church, where Seppia was the parish priest.
According to investigators, Seppia told a friend — a former seminarian and barman who is currently under investigation — that the town's malls were the best places to entice minors. In tapped phone conversations the two cursed and swore against God. The priest is charged with having attempted to kiss and touch an underage altar boy and of having exchanged cocaine for sexual intercourse with boys over 18. (See inside Benedict XVI's daily life.)
Seppia's defense lawyers are expected to argue that those conversations — monitored since Oct. 20, 2010 — were just words, sex games that were played by adults. It was just a game even when he claimed to have "kissed on the mouth" a 15-year-old altar boy, according to the defense.
On Monday, May 16, during formal questioning by Genoa's investigating magistrate Annalisa Giacalone, Seppia chose not to respond. The magistrate decided to keep him in custody to avoid a risk of relapse or tampering with evidence. Defense attorney Paolo Bonanni said the defense wants to evaluate all the charges, reserving the right to respond to public prosecutor Stefano Puppo in the coming days.
Questioned by the investigators, the altar boy reportedly confirmed the attempted kiss. Another male minor who, according to the investigators, was stalked with messages and pressing invitations, will be questioned soon. Psychologists are helping Carabinieri police officers obtain testimony from the alleged victims. "The boys are ashamed to talk and to admit what happened," says one of the investigators. The evidence amounts to at least 50 messages and phone calls. In the tapped phone conversations, the drug dealer contacted the boys and gave their phone numbers to the priest, who paid them with cocaine or 50 euros each time for sexual intercourse. (Read "Controversial Study Links Catholic Abuse to '60s Culture and Church Hierarchy but Offers Few Solutions.")
"[The investigators] made us listen to that man saying terrifying things about our children. Things so terrible that I cannot repeat them," a father of one of the boys said.
Investigators are also examining three confiscated computers: the priest allegedly looked for partners via chat as well.
Seppia is currently being kept in a confinement cell in a Genoa prison. He met the jail's priest and psychologist. "He has read the newspapers, and he is pained by his parishioners' comments," says his lawyer. The investigation is ongoing.