After a string of investigations exposing paedophile priests across the globe, it is time for Catholic-majority Italy to hold its own reckoning, a top advisor to the Vatican told AFP.

Hans Zollner, a German Jesuit priest on Pope Francis's commission to protect minors, was speaking after the latest such probe, in Germany, accused former pope Benedict XVI of inaction on sexual abuse cases.

"There are cases of sexual abuse against minors in all parts of the world, in all sectors of society and also in the Church," including in Italy, said Zollner.

"Three to 5% of priests around the world have been accused of abuse in the past 75 years," he told AFP in a telephone interview late last week.

"We think the figures are comparable in Italy," said Zollner, who is also director of Rome's Anthropology Institute, based at the Pontifical Gregorian University, which deals with the prevention of abuse. 

"There are most likely priests who have abused and continue to live without being discovered."

Asked if an inquiry was needed in Italy, he said: "Obviously it is necessary to conduct an inquiry in every part of the world."

"We must do everything possible to obtain justice for the victims of the past, and also to prevent abuse today," he added.

Pandora's Box

Italy's main victims' association, Rete L'Abuso (Abuse Network), which has 1,300 members, has recorded more than 300 cases of priests accused or convicted of child sexual abuse in the past 15 years, out of a total of 50,000 priests across the country.

But precise figures on Italy are impossible to come by due to the lack of independent reports, said Zollner, a close adviser to the 85-year-old pope. 

Inquiries across the United States, Europe and Australia have exposed the scale of the problem - and also the decades-long Church cover-up.

"Italian society still appears to be very closed to this subject," said Zollner, adding that the national news media is itself reluctant to probe the subject. 

The Catholic Church is not as powerful as it once was in Italy, the historic home of the popes, but it retains a huge influence and two-thirds of the population are believers, according to a 2019 survey.

"These kinds of investigations are almost always begun when society as a whole is, in some way, ready to tackle this very difficult, thorny and uncomfortable issue," Zollner said.

"In Italy, I don't see this readiness," he said, adding that other sectors of society face similar challenges. 

"No one has any real interest in opening Pandora's box and looking the reality of this country in the face."

Encouraging signs

But there were some encouraging signs. 

"Now I feel that the Italian bishops are thinking about which model to follow to start an investigation," he said. 

Separately, Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, president of the Italian Bishops' Conference (CEI), said on Saturday that the group had been "thinking for some time about launching a thorough and serious investigation".

Beyond an investigation, Zollner said the Church still needed to "overcome a certain esprit de corps that tends to protect the institution first".

"It is difficult to deny abuses, but some people see it as an attack on the Church or think it is exaggerated," he said.

In Germany, a string of inquiries in recent years have exposed widespread abuse of children by clergymen.

But last month's report was particularly shocking, criticising ex-pope Benedict XVI for turning a blind eye to abusive priests while he was the Archbishop of Munich from 1977 to 1982. He has denied any wrongdoing. 

In France last year, a landmark inquiry found over 200,000 minors had been abused by clergy in the past seven decades.

Bishops in Portugal announced in November they would launch an inquiry into abuse by priests, while Spain on Tuesday took its very first step towards a parliamentary investigation, with the backing of a range of political parties.

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