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Students abused at Catholic school for deaf boys in Verona seek closure at Pope's summit

Dozens of men who suffered physical and sexual abuse by clergy at a school for deaf boys in Verona, Italy, are still looking for justice. They'll travel to the Pope's summit this weekend to demand it.

WARNING: This story contains graphic details that may be disturbing to some readers

Alessandro Vantini, second from right, wearing glasses, with some of his schoolmates at the Antonio Provolo Institute for deaf boys. Dozens of students at the school suffered sexual and physical abuse by priests between the 1950s and 1980s. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Alessandro Vantini uses crude gestures to illustrate the way three priests abused him throughout his entire childhood at a school for deaf boys in the northern Italian city of Verona.

He said one clergyman regularly hit him with a stick and sodomized him. "For me, it was like dying," he said through an interpreter.

He said he yelled but "no one could hear me because everyone around was deaf."

At least dozens of boys who attended Verona's Antonio Provolo Institute are believed to have suffered similarly horrific experiences. Between the 1950s and 1980s, staff at the Catholic Church-run school physically and sexually abused deaf students entrusted in their care. The scandal only came to light decades later.

Vantini attended the school from age six to 18. Now 68, He has lived with the horrific memories for decades. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

That the Provolo scandal is considered by some observers to be the biggest known case in Italy's history underscores the size of the task facing Pope Francis as he convenes senior Catholic clerics for an unprecedented global summit.

The meeting, which gets underway Thursday at the Vatican, is aimed at preventing the future abuse of minors after decades of widespread sexual abuse by clergy and its systematic coverup has undermined the faith of many of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics.

Vantini is one of about 25 abuse survivors and their supporters making the 500-kilometre train journey from Verona to Rome to demand a monetary settlement for historical abuse suffered at the Provolo Institute.

"I'm fed up with this story," said Vantini, 68. "I want compensation." He said he has lost faith in the Church and no longer prays.

'I believed them'

The Provolo scandal has put a stain on a Unesco World Heritage city famously known for its medieval architecture and as the setting for two of Shakespeare's plays.

The Provolo scandal was first reported in Italy's L'Espresso news magazine in 2009. Under the headline "We, the victims of pedophile priests," the article revealed 67 people had signed a document alleging historical abuse at the institute.

Verona's Antonio Provolo Institute made national headlines 10 years ago, when allegations of sexual abuse committed by priests against deaf boys first surfaced publicly. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

The writer, Paolo Tessadri, said he was "stunned."

"But when I looked them in the eyes and heard their words, I believed them," he said in a recent interview.

Some 400 local deaf people now regularly congregate at the Provolo Association, a community centre of sorts across town from the site where the school for the deaf used to operate. The interior is decorated with skulls, dolls resembling unborn fetuses and newspaper clippings about clerical abuse — a striking symbol of the level of anger still felt here toward the Catholic Church.

Not all members of the association attended the school, but everyone is aware of the horrors that occurred there.

"Physical violence, oral sex, sodomization and everything in between," Provolo Association president Giorgio Della Bernardina explained bluntly. He says he didn't personally experience sexual abuse at the institute but regularly suffered physical assaults by clergymen.

And misconduct extended beyond the boys' school. Girls who attended another institution two doors down — separated only by a church — complained of secretive abuse, as well.

Alda Franchetto went to the girls' school for the deaf just doors down from the Antonio Provolo Institute. She described being molested by a priest just before her first communion. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Sitting at the Provolo Association with her husband, Alda Franchetto recalled being groped by a priest at the church every week while he masturbated. Franchetto, 67, is also deaf.

"The nuns knew exactly what was going on, but they didn't say anything," she said.

'We haven't had justice'

On a recent visit to the community centre, a table in the middle of the room was covered with handmade signs bearing angry messages calling Provolo staff "devils," along with mock Catholic cleric-style headwear marked "Pedophile priests out of the church." Campaigners intend to carry the props as they demonstrate at the Vatican this week.

"We asked for a lot of years for justice, but we haven't had justice," said Marco Lodi Rizzini, a spokesperson for the Provolo Association.

A protest sign on a table at the Provolo Association is titled 'Priests and lay people involved,' with those marked in red 'still alive.' (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

In 2010, the Vatican ordered an investigation into the abuse in Verona, assigning Monsignor Giampietro Mazzoni, the president of the local ecclesiastical tribunal, to head up an inquiry. He, in turned, assigned a civil magistrate — not a clergyman — to look into the claims of abuse.

Seventeen victims came forward for the investigation, Mazzoni said. Only two living clergymen were found guilty in the sexual abuse investigation. Don Eligio Piccoli, 84, was sentenced to "a life of prayer and penance." Lino Gugole, who suffered from Alzheimer's disease, "was not in fit state to be punished," Mazzoni said.

"We have to be clear and honest about everything that goes on like this," he said in an interview from his office in Verona. "We've seen what results come from the methods of the past, which entailed sweeping the dust under the carpet."

Pope Francis has attempted to tamp down expectations for his four-day summit at the Vatican, recently saying "the problem of abuse will continue." But survivors in Verona still hope it will somehow carve a path toward the closure that's been elusive for them.

"I hope it's the beginning [of] another era, but we don't know," said Rizzini. "Wait and see."

About the Author

Thomas Daigle is CBC’s senior technology reporter, based in Toronto.