In what is being spoken of as a ‘historical first’, a bishop has gone to Italy’s civil authorities to denounce priests and religious brothers accused of sexually abusing minors. Bishop Giovanni Nerbini has broken ranks with the men who lead Italy’s other 225 dioceses.
Nerbini, who is bishop of the Diocese of Prato just 16 miles (25.5 km) north of Florence, contacted police in late December to report abuse allegations against nine members of a controversial religious community called the ‘Disciples of the Annunciation’. He did so shortly after the Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life informed him in a Dec. 16 letter that it had suppressed the Disciples of the Annunciation.
The bishop took the action on his own initiative. Neither the State of Italy nor the Vatican requires clerics to report sexual abuse to civil authorities.
Nerbini’s retired predecessor, Bishop Franco Agostinelli, had already learned of the alleged abuse early last summer, but he reported it only to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which opened an administrative penal process.
The ‘Disciples of the Annumciation’ order was started in the Diocese of Prato in 2005.It was recognized canonically as an association of the faithful in 2010. However, in 2013 diocesan officials launched the first of two investigations into the religious community.
The Vatican would mandate the second investigation in 2018. During these periods of “canonical visitation” there was no hint of sex abuse say Church authorities. The Vatican-led investigation found that the group was like a cult. The Vatican congregation listed other reasons for suppressing the group. These included (but were not limited to) a dwindling number of members, defiance of diocesan authority and “serious perplexities about the founder’s style of governance and his suitability for this role”.
The founder of the Disciples of the Annunciation is Gilioli Gigli, now a 73-year-old priest from Verona.He went to Prato in the early 2000s and in January 2005 established his fledgling new community with the express permission of the bishop at the time, Gastone Simoni, now retired and close to 83 years old. Don Gigli gathered young men from various parts of the world into his group. The charism of his new community was to “incarnate the ‘Here I am, Lord’ that the Virgin Mary spoke to the Archangel Gabriel” at the Annunciation. Members would profess a fourth vow in addition to those of poverty, chastity and obedience – the vow of abandonment to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
The Disciples of the Annunciation thrived early on, but it did not take long before members started leaving. The community was in crisis, prompting diocesan authorities and, eventually, the Vatican to step in. There was never any mention of sexual abuse of minors.
In April 2019, a man in his 20s told a priest that various members of the Disciples had sexually abused him and one of his brothers between 2008 and 2016 when they were still minors. The priest advised the man to report the alleged assault to Bishop Agostinelli. He did not do so until June. By that time Pope Francis had already accepted the bishop’s resignation and had named Giovanni Nerbini – still just a parish priest – as the new leader of Prato diocese. Nonetheless, Bishop Agostinelli sent the abuse allegations to the Vatican’s doctrinal office, which is standard protocol.
On June 30, the 65-year-old Nerbini, who had been working in a parish and serving as vicar general of another Tuscan diocese (Fiesole), was ordained Bishop. But it was not until Sept. 7 when he was officially installed as Agostinelli’s successor.
Bishop Nerbini was a schoolteacher for the first sixteen years of his professional life. He then entered the seminary in 1989 at age 35. He was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Fiesole in 1995, a few weeks shy of his 41st birthday. His entire 24 years of priestly ministry has been parish work, though he was also given extra duties as diocesan vicar general in 2015.
At his installation as Bishop he said, “I know my place here – it is to be in the middle with the priests and people of this diocese.”
The newly installed Bishop Giovanni wasted no time on the case against the Disciples of the Annunciation. He met with the alleged victims and the accused, discovering and verifying more information. He also made sure the canonical investigation, which Church authorities maintain were unrelated to the abuse allegations, was proceeding expediently.
Few people knew of his decision to report the abuse claims to the civil authorities. That came to light on Jan. 29 after local magistrates announced they were investigating nine members of the suppressed religious community – among them, five priests, including the founder.
Bishop Nerbini called a TV press conference the same day and confirmed that he was the one that contacted the civil authorities several weeks earlier. The Church will fully cooperate with Italian authorities, he said. The bishop said the magistrates had concluded the first phase of their investigation and pledged the Church’s full cooperation in the ongoing probe.
“I will not hide my pain and my deep concern and I’d like to hope that the accusations are not true,” he told reporters.”But I want to say clearly that the primary interest of the Church of Prato is to find out the truth. For this reason, I hope the magistrates, in the interests of everyone, are able to complete their investigation as soon as possible,” Nerbini said.
These two short statements, which seem so normal and right, were like a thunderclap.The culture of omertà (a strict silence) as a way to deal with unspeakable or shameful things still has a powerful influence on the collective Italian mentality.Italians – especially those who wear the Roman collar – just don’t talk about such things. At least they didn’t used to.
“Bishop Nerbini may have opened a whole new chapter on this front,” writes journalist Robert Mickens. “Some of his confreres in the episcopacy must be scared to death at the prospect, because, for many of them, death is exactly what’s at stake. Death to clerical privilege and immunity. Death to the silence that protects the perpetrators. Death to the mystique of the sacred, which too many clerics still cultivate and wield as a holy power to control others. Giovanni Nerbini has broken the longstanding policy of bishops in Italy to allow no one but themselves to investigate crimes inside the Church. Hopefully, more existing bishops will do as he has done. And, hopefully, Pope Francis will appoint some more new bishops that will do the same.”