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Paedophile priests in rehab: how the Vatican tries to 'cure' child abusers

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Pope Francis delivers his blessing as he recites the Angelus noon prayer from the window of his studio overlooking St.Peter’s Square, at the Vatican,  Sunday, Jan. 12, 2020.
Pope Francis delivers his blessing as he recites the Angelus noon prayer from the window of his studio overlooking St.Peter’s Square, at the Vatican, Sunday, Jan. 12, 2020.   -  
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The list of conditions that Marco Ermes Luparia, a deacon and psychotherapist at Divino Amore in Rome, has dealt with in recent years is a long one, including stress, alcoholism, burnout and crises of career, as well as faith.

It also includes paedophilia.

Hundreds of priests have passed through the doors of the centre over the last 25 years, Luparia, 69, told Euronews. He would not reveal how many of them have been child sex offenders, only to say that it was not "the most frequent disorder" he deals with.

Around 150 priests have been convicted of child sex offences over the last 15 years, as part of a scandal that has rocked the Catholic Church. Before many are convicted they are either referred to centres like Divino Amore by a bishop or attend voluntarily, says Luparia.

“Paedophiles have a strongly infantile, selfish dimensions as adults. We have to work on this immaturity. We explore childhood memories to identify the tipping point for the subject’s psychosexual development,” Luparia said.

The treatment, he says, “lasts years and certainly not ten months. [...] The only way to deal with it is open-heart surgery".

Divino Amore is not the first centre to try to "cure" paedophiles within the church.

Francesco Zanardi, the founder of the network L'Abuso, which offers support to victims of sexual abuse by the Church in Italy, has counted as many as 24 centres.

"In 99% of cases, when priests who have committed abuse are under house arrest, they go to these places," Zanardi said.

The treatment of convicted sex offenders is, of course, controversial. Critics point out that while centres exist to treat the perpetrators, little support is provided to the victims, with no invalidity pension or psychological support provided by the state.

"Paradoxically, the Church has set up these facilities for priests, while there are no state offices for the victims", Zanardi said.

He says that the Treaty of Lanzarote of the Council of Europe was written to fight sexual abuse of minors, and provides a disability pension for victims and an "anti-paedophilia" certificate for the categories most exposed to work with minors - such as voluntary work.

But these two measures do not exist in Italy, he said.

AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino
In this Monday, Dec. 9, 2019 photo, Monsignor John Kennedy, the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, walks through a chapel as he speaks during an interview at the Vatican.AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino

Can paedophilia be cured?

Maurizio Marasco, a psychiatrist and former professor of forensic psychopathology and criminology, says paedophilia is not classified as a pathology and is therefore not a disease, but “an anomaly of sexual behaviour that remains stable over time”.

“For this reason, there is no pharmacological therapy," he said.

Priests often realise that they have committed a serious crime and accept their punishment, but this is no guarantee they will not offend again, he added.

“I have known people who have been tried, imprisoned, sentenced to a recovery programme but years later they have committed that crime again," he said.

Marasco remains concerned that there is little scrutiny on the work that is done at recovery centres: “Once they get out of there, how can we be sure that they will not sexually abuse minors again? That is the problem," he said.

What happens after prison?

Luparia’s work ends once a priest is convicted, as his organisation cannot access Italian prisons, he said.

And once a perpetrator is released from jail, neither the Italian State nor the Church follows those who leave prison after serving a sentence for sexual abuse of children due to lack of funding, he said.

"In most cases, these priests become homeless after prison," Luparia said.

"We try to continue the therapy even afterwards. There is a consistent number of priests who have had therapy with us and who are no longer priests: for them, we dream of a convent to allow them to live a dignified life.

"The terrorist, the murderers, everyone has the right to a decent life. Why shouldn't paedophile priests have the same right?" Luparia asked.

In Milan's Bollate prison, the Italian Centre for the Promotion of Mediation implemented a project in 2015 for prisoners convicted of sexual crimes against women and minors - but it is not therapy.

"We don't do therapy," said Paolo Giulini, the centre's president.

"Deviant behaviour must be treated in a criminological sense. We work on issues such as stress management, the stages that led to committing the crime, the development of empathy towards victims and sex education".

Since 2015, more than 300 prisoners have participated in the project on a voluntary basis, Giulini told Euronews. Only 11 have reoffended after their release.

"We have also worked with some priests. Some of them had done therapy with their deacon before coming to us. We know that some religious orders offer psychological support but we do not work in synergy," Giulini said.

"It's a miracle we are still in business. In the beginning, we had funding from the Lombardy region, then from a European project. Now we are supported by a private foundation. Every year we risk closing down.”

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