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Secrets of the confessional

The paedophile panic is sweeping Italy too. Dominic Standish and Laura Ceccato report from Venice

Denunciations and confessionals are as Italian as pasta. But since the abduction, abuse and murder of a nine-year old boy last year, these religious practices have been spirited out of the church into the political system, and their targets have become a very particular kind of sinner: the paedophile.

In November 1997, nine-year old Silvestro was abducted by three men, abused and killed. This horrific murder became the first in a stream of paedophile stories to hit the headlines, involving accusations of sexual abuse against salesmen and baby-sitters, priests and football coaches. The authorities have been swift to respond. Milan led the way in setting up Italy's first police unit and team of lawyers specialising in fighting violence against children, plus centres for abused children.

Paedophilia is not a new problem in Italy; the Roman Emperors were, after all, as famous for their favourite boys as for their harems of women. What has changed is the public reaction to it. In particular, unpopular politicians desperate to make links with their electorate are preying on popular fears about paedophiles in a bid to win new authority.

Italy's politicians were initially slow to respond to Silvestro's death, and came under fire when TV showed only 14 deputies present during a parliamentary debate on paedophilia. But the Italian elite quickly moved to engage with the public mood. The 'Olive Tree' coalition government, led by the Refounded Communist Party and the Democratic Party of the Left (PDS), prioritised the enactment of a new Code to Protect Children. This mainly addresses sex and violence on television, restricting violent scenes - even on the news - and banning alcohol, condom and sex-related advertising (except in relation to Aids) between 7am and 10.30pm. The PDS Minister for the Arts, Walter Veltroni, highlighted restrictions on sex telephone line advertising as a first step against paedophilia. Even the Vatican has indicated that it will consider making paedophilia a crime against humanity.

At the local level, the PDS Mayor of Naples, Antonio Bassolino, unable to do much about the chronic unemployment and crime in the city, has spearheaded policies against paedophilia. He has supported a task force of teachers and doctors to take sex education into the schools, in order to teach children how to protect themselves from abuse at an earlier age. Writing for the liberal-left L'Espresso, Cristina Marlotti called for the state to provide after-school protection for children whose parents cannot collect them from school at home time. The council in Naples has now hired grandparents as 'Guardian Angels' to ensure children leaving school reach their transport safely.

The PDS' anti-paedophile campaign is an example of the new politics taking shape in Italy's uncertain post-Cold War climate. The ramifications of the collapse of the old parties of both right and left went far beyond voting. The established patterns of Italian life associated with voting Christian Democrat or Communist have also crumbled. The anti-paedophile campaign, rather like the anti-Mafia crusade before it, is an attempt by the reformed political elite to gain some new public legitimacy.

However, far from unifying the Italian people, the constant concern about paedophilia can ultimately only exaggerate people's mutual distrust. A trend has been unleashed whereby anybody acting in an unfamiliar way risks being denounced - like the man in Rome recently reported as a suspected paedophile because he was seen taking a photograph of his niece outside a school. At the time of going to press Mario Bianco, a 67-year old Guardian Angel from Naples, has been arrested on suspicion of sexual abuse. The blue telephones in public places for children to call a help line are spreading, as are the pink ones for women. The telephones are supposed to symbolise a new state-sponsored security, but all they really show is Italian society's heightened sense of fear.

Few commentators have considered what will happen as paedophilia within the priesthood is increasingly exposed. Despite the declining authority of the Catholic Church, priests still play a pivotal role in social cohesion, especially in villages and small towns. The endless chain of denunciations can only further undermine the fabric of Italian society.

Reproduced from LM issue 110, May 1998

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