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Pope Francis brings a forceful new tone on sexual abuse cases

NAPLES, Italy — Diego was the shy one in Father Silverio Mura’s class; a 13-year-old, olive-skinned and handsome, who spent his free time indoors watching cartoons. He walked to school alone in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, stopping first to pray to a statue of the Virgin Mary in the rose garden in front of his apartment building.

“She was my protector,” he said.

But nothing and no one, Diego charged, protected him from Mura — the religion teacher who invited the then-teenage boy to the priest’s small apartment on Brothers Grimm Street after class one day in 1989. There, Diego, now 39, said Mura cajoled him into a kiss.

A few days later, he was asked to return, suffering the first of what he described as hundreds of incidences of sexual abuse that turned a quiet boy who wanted to be a pilot into a deeply troubled adult.

After he finally came forward in 2009, Diego’s case languished. The local diocese even transferred Mura in 2012 to a school where the priest had regular access to children as young as 14. That’s when Diego, who is still Catholic, made what would become a decisive move — he wrote directly to Pope Francis.

His case has become one of several in which Francis has personally intervened to aid alleged abuse victims in what the Vatican calls yet another push for change by a pope known for leading by example.

The pope, according to the Vatican, escalated Diego’s case, prompting an official church investigation that could ultimately lead to Mura’s defrocking. Given the length of such legal processes in the church, it could take a year or more to establish his guilt or innocence.

Yet even as Francis seeks to bring a forceful new tone to an issue that severely damaged the Catholic Church’s reputation prior to his appointment, the pope is sometimes swimming against the tide.

In local dioceses from Italy to the Philippines, Francis is confronting stubborn and sloth-like bureaucracies that are still committing some of the same grave errors of the past.

That, Vatican officials say, is what Francis is trying to change, and few cases exemplify that effort more than Diego’s. Mura declined to comment through a representative of the Diocese of Naples, which additionally refused to say whether the priest is denying the charges against him.

“I would say the pope is very sensitive to all kinds of suffering, and certainly he is sending an indirect message” with Diego’s case, said a senior Vatican official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “These kinds of cases will not be tolerated.”

Before the ascension of the first Latin American pope two years ago this month, no single issue plagued the Roman Catholic Church more than sexual abuse by priests. In 2010 — years after a wave of scandals had hit the church in the United States — fresh revelations emerged of mass abuse in countries including Germany, the Netherlands and Malta. The ensuing fallout was seen as one factor in the surprising 2013 retirement of Pope Benedict XVI.

Enter Pope Francis, an Argentine cleric not previously known for his dedication to the issue. As cardinal and, before that, archbishop of Buenos Aires, he declined a request to meet with at least one set of victims and reportedly failed to comply with Vatican calls to draft guidelines for handling abuse claims.

Yet — just as he has on a number of issues, including homosexuality — the 78-year-old appears to have done an about-face as pope. Last year, Francis drafted a letter to global bishops demanding zero tolerance in abuse cases. He launched a commission aimed at broad reforms in church laws, with changes under discussion now including harsher penalties for bishops who fail to swiftly deal with allegations or report alleged cases to civil authorities.

In September, the Vatican put its former ambassador to the Dominican Republic, Jozef Wesolowski, under house arrest and launched its first criminal proceedings against a senior church official accused of sexually abusing minors.

Last year, the church, for the first time, revealed a snapshot of its internal handling of the abuse issue, saying that between 2004 and 2014, 848 priests had been defrocked while 2,575 others received lessor sentences.

In a handful of cases, Vatican officials say, the pope has gone further — by personally stepping in. The pope called a man from Granada, Spain, who wrote to him about abuse as an altar boy, including sex retreats at a hilltop villa involving 10 priests. Last November, Francis said he directed the local bishop to cooperate in the case.

“The truth is the truth, and we should not hide it,” the pontiff told reporters while discussing the case.

In a religious organization designed as something of a benign dictatorship, the pope’s personal actions carry massive weight. Yet in some notable cases, the Vatican has still proved reluctant to cooperate fully with civil authorities, and victims’ groups remain deeply disapproving of Francis’s handling of the abuse issue.

Francis, like Benedict before him, victims’ groups say, has failed to act decisively against bishops charged with hiding abuse in their diocese, and has embraced solutions they see as little more than window dressing. They cite alarming instances, for example, in which local dioceses have left abusive priests in ministry.

The activist group BishopAccountability.org, for instance, recently drafted a letter to senior church officials profiling a number of accused clerics in the Philippines who, they say, still enjoy easy access to children. Symbolism alone, critics insist, will not get the job done.

“Getting involved in one or two cases is a PR strategy, not a solution,” said David Clohessy, president of the U.S. abuse survivors group SNAP.

Yet for those few affected by the pope’s involvement, it can feel like nothing short of a miracle.

“Do you know what it’s like, after trying to be heard, to have the pope — the pope! — finally hear you?” Diego said in his Naples apartment, surrounded by his wife and eldest son. To protect his identity, he used a pseudonym paying homage to his idol, Argentine soccer great Diego Maradona. The Washington Post generally does not identify victims of sexual abuse.

“I finally feel like I can walk in the daylight,” he said. “If I could see the pope today, I would tell him, ‘Thank you, thank you for listening.’ “

On an October morning in 2009, Diego was in the town of Caserta, 20 miles north of Naples, laboring in the latest of a series of jobs he has tried over the years. He had lost a job a few months earlier after threatening a co-worker in one the fits of aggression that have sometimes seemed to possess him during his adult life.

He thought he had compartmentalized the trauma of his childhood, but on that day in October, “everything hit me,” he said. Suddenly, he fainted on the job.

Hospital studies, according to Diego’s psychiatrist, Alfonso Rossi, could find no medical reason for his abdominal pains and frequent vomiting. But therapy sessions, Rossi said, revealed the suppression of four years of alleged sexual abuse by a man who had seemed to haunt Diego’s life.

In sessions with Rossi, Diego said he relived those years in minute detail. He remembered the gray armchair that he said the priest used to block the door in his bedroom before they engaged in sex acts. The priest, Diego said, would frequently make him watch horror movies first “so I would be scared, and more willing to comply.”

Diego dropped out of school 18 months after he said the abuse started but continued to visit the priest’s home. “I felt under a spell. I could not pull away, I could not tell anyone,” said Diego, who takes five medications for depression and anxiety. “He was a priest, a man of the cloth. I could not say no.”

Their sexual contact, Diego said, stopped when he turned 17 and pulled away. But it was replaced by another kind of torment.

Diego’s parents, who knew nothing of the abuse at the time, pushed for Mura to officiate at Diego’s wedding. Photos reveal the dour face of the groom as he and his new bride pose next to a beaming Mura in glorious white robes.

Diego would then watch in mute frustration as the same priest baptized two of his three children. Through it all, Diego said nothing, paralyzed by what he called a deep sense of shame.

When he poured out the truth to his parents shortly after his hospitalization, his mother blamed herself. Years earlier, Diego’s parents, his mother recalled, had frequently welcomed the priest into their home for dinners, taking pride in the attention showered on their quiet boy by a respected figure in the church.

“How could I not notice?” she said. “My son used to hole himself up in his room, close his door and never come out. Father Mura told me, ‘It must be because of his age. It happens to young boys.’ And I believed him. I felt hypnotized. I still cannot understand.”

In a dramatic encounter in 2010, Diego confronted Mura at the Naples church where he was still pastor. A video shows Mura in his office, a copy of the famous cherubs from Raphael’s Sistine Madonna over his desk, never directly acknowledging — nor denying — the accusations being lobbed at him by an emotional Diego. Mura is heard seeking to dissuade Diego from seeing a therapist or “talking to other people.”

“Trust yourself to Jesus,” Mura said. “He is the greatest psychiatrist.”

With the aid of his mother, Diego crafted and hand-delivered a letter to the Diocese of Naples in May 2010, seeking an audience to discuss his sexual abuse. He followed up with emails, but, he said, he was never contacted.

A year later, Rossi wrote his own letter to the dioceses, and he finally brokered a meeting between Diego and a local bishop in October 2011. Diego said he informed the bishop in detail of his abusive history with Mura, but no immediate action was taken to sanction the priest.

In May 2012, Mura was transferred from his parish to a nearby hospitality school, and, according to school officials, arrived with a diocesan letter certifying him as officially “suitable” for service as a teacher. The school’s rosters show him serving there for approximately a year, before he was transferred to what one representative of the diocese called “a place for priests like him.”

The Diocese of Naples, citing the ongoing investigation, declined to comment.

Diego said he felt the diocese was effectively sweeping his charges under the rug. He went to the local police, who, he said, were sympathetic but hamstrung by the expiry of statutes of limitations.

Finally, he wrote to the pope on March 4 of last year. Twenty days later, a reply came from the office of the pope, saying Francis would pray for him, and, more important, that his case would be “brought to the attention of the competent authority.”

In November, Diego said he received a call from the diocese saying that an official investigation had been launched. But during a meeting with a diocesan official in December, he asked why an investigation had suddenly been opened. The investigator, Diego said, replied by saying, “Because of the Holy Father.”

Washington Post correspondent Stefano Pitrelli contributed to this report.

© 2015, The Washington Post

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