VATICAN CITY — A Vatican court on Wednesday acquitted a priest on sexual abuse charges dating to when he and his accuser were teenage altar boys at a seminary within the Vatican walls. A second priest, the rector of the seminary at the time, was cleared of charges that he covered up the alleged abuses.
Prosecutors claimed that the abuse began when the priest, the Rev. Gabriele Martinelli, now 29, and his accuser, who was identified only by his initials, L.G., were young teenagers, less than a year apart, living at a seminary for altar boys in the Vatican, and continued for five years. Father Martinelli was not a priest at the time, but he was ordained years later.
The court rulings, based on the Vatican’s own laws, found that Father Martinelli could not be punished for alleged actions when he was under 16, the age of consent in Italy. After that age, it determined that, although sexual acts had taken place, “there was no proof that the victim had been forced into these relations through violence or threats.”
The former rector, the Rev. Enrico Radice, was acquitted of charges that he had aided and abetted the abuse by discrediting the accuser’s allegations. Prosecutors had accused Father Radice of lying to Vatican investigators, telling them at one point that he had no knowledge of alleged abuse at the seminary.
Both defendants had denied any wrongdoing and accused L.G. of a personal vendetta against them.
The verdict comes as the Vatican continues to grapple with how to deal with sexual abuse of children by adult priests and a day after an independent commission in France released an investigation estimating than more than 200,000 minors had been sexually abused by clergy members since 1950. Pope Francis apologized on Wednesday to the victims of sexual abuse at the hands of the clergy in France.
“This is a moment of shame,” he said.
At the Vatican on Wednesday, the judge, Giuseppe Pignatone, read out the verdict without further comment. Father Martinelli and Father Radice were present and did not react visibly. Father Radice’s lawyer, Agnese Camilli Carissimi, repeatedly patted him on the back.
Father Martinelli had been accused of abusing his position as head altar boy to force the other teenager into participating in what the Vatican called “carnal acts.” The prosecutors claimed that the abuse began when the accuser was 13 and Father Martinelli was seven months older, and that it continued for five years inside the St. Pius X youth seminary for altar boys at St. Peter’s Basilica, in a building close to the pope’s residence.
Prosecutors argued that as a dominant presence at the seminary, Father Martinelli had been able to coerce L.G. into doing his will by offering plum rewards, like serving mass with the pope, in exchange for sexual favors.
The Vatican moved the seminary outside its walls in May 2021. At the time, a Vatican note said it had done this “so that the students could be closer to their places of study and recreational activities.”
L.G. left the seminary in 2012, while Father Martinelli pursued a course of studies within the church and was ordained a priest in 2017.
The accusations covered in the trial first came to light when an anonymous source sent a letter to several cardinals and to Pope Francis in 2013, the first year of his papacy. That helped bring about an investigation led by the bishop of Como, the northern Italian city where the religious order that runs the seminary is based. The Como investigation found the accusations to be groundless.
But in 2017, a book by an author who specializes in Vatican tell-alls, along with an investigative television program, applied fresh pressure and the Vatican opened a new inquiry.
Francis has not commented on the case, but he did speak at length on Wednesday about the abuse of children by adult priests, which he has called evil and an existential threat to the Roman Catholic Church itself. He specifically addressed the report out of France.
“To the victims, I wish to express my sadness and pain for the traumas they have endured,” he said. “And also my shame, our shame, my shame that for so long the church has been incapable of putting this at the center of its concerns.”
Addressing the French-speaking pilgrims at his weekly audience, he encouraged clerics in France “to continue to do everything possible so that similar tragedies might not be repeated.”