Vatican youth seminary scandal grows with new abuse claims

FILE - In this Nov. 13, 2016 file photo shows altar boys holding their booklets of prayers as they wait for the start of a Mass celebrated by Pope Francis on the occasion of the homeless jubilee, inside St. Peter's Basilica, at the Vatican. Catholic officials in Italy have threatened former altar boys of the pope with criminal defamation charges for having publicly accused an older seminarian of sexual misconduct when they lived together at the youth seminary inside the Vatican gardens. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia, files)
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VATICAN CITY (AP) — A scandal over alleged sexual molestation and abuse at the Vatican’s youth seminary is growing, with more former papal altar boys alleging inappropriate behavior by priests inside the Vatican walls.

Le Iene, an Italian investigative television program, plans to air the new allegations Sunday; the show provided the broadcast to The Associated Press ahead of time.

The Vatican announced in September that its criminal prosecutor was seeking to indict a former senior seminarian and the then-rector of the St. Pius X seminary on sexual abuse charges.

The announcement came two years after Le Iene first featured former seminarians who alleged that the senior seminarian, now a priest, had molested teen-age boys who lived inside the Vatican and served as altar boys at papal Masses in St. Peter’s Basilica. The testimony suggested a series of priests, bishops and even a cardinal had covered up the case for years.

In the new program, several unnamed former altar boys alleged at least two more priests affiliated with the seminary kissed and fondled three other altar boys in the 1990s. In one case, an alleged victim said a priest sat him on his lap and fondled his penis. In another case, an alleged victim marveled how Le Iene had heard about things he had only told his confessor.

Coupled with previous testimony gathered by Le Iene, the impression given is that of a closed, religious atmosphere in which sexualized touching and groping were normalized for boys as young as 11.

In a statement ahead of the program provided to the AP, the Vatican press office said a decision on whether to issue indictments in the original case was “imminent.” The statement said any new elements or evidence of other crimes that emerge would be considered by Vatican prosecutors in a new investigation.

The case concerns the closed world of the St. Pius X youth seminary, located inside a palazzo just a few steps from the Vatican hotel where Pope Francis lives. It serves as a residence for about a dozen boys, aged 11 to 18, who serve as altar boys at papal Masses.

The seminary is run by a small Italian religious order, the Opera Don Folchi. The group has lashed out at the allegations as “mud,” a “violent attack on the church” and nothing more than “calumny and falsifications.”

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