Catholic officials in Italy are threatening to file criminal defamation charges against former altar boys after they accused an older seminarian of sexually assaulting them while living in the Vatican.
The Associated Press (AP) reported that the accusations involve a former seminarian who is now serving as a priest in the diocese of Como and a member of the Don Folci association, which runs the St. Pius X preseminary in a palazzo just steps away from where Pope Francis lives.
An ex-student, identified only as "Marco," claimed that the seminarian would come into his room at night demanding oral sex, beginning when was only 13 years old and continuing until he reached the age of 18.
In an interview with reporter Gaetano Pecoraro, Marco said that the seminarian was a year older than him and held a position of authority over other students.
Marco's roommate, Kamil Jarzembowski, claimed to have witnessed dozens of such incidents and had complained about them to seminary officials, before bringing it to the attention of cardinals, and ultimately Pope Francis in 2014.
Church officials said that the claims have been proven to be false following internal church investigations, although the boys in question were initially not interviewed.
Another former student had reported a groping incident when the seminarian was 20 and he was 15. The allegation was made public in a book and a series of investigative reports on Italia 1 TV's program "Le Iene" ("The Hyenas"), prompting church officials to threaten the alleged victims with criminal defamation charges.
While the accused seminarian had been ordained as a priest earlier this year, none of the accusers went on to pursue the priesthood.
In a Nov. 17 letter to at least one of the former students, Riccardo Rolando Riccardi, a lawyer representing the Don Folci association, warned that he was preparing the case in Rome's tribunal "for the alleged crime committed by the divulgation of news to the press about alleged acts of sexual assault that allegedly occurred" in the seminary.
The letter also instructed the former altar boy to come in for questioning or face interrogation by prosecutors in Rome.
Last week, "Le Iene" revealed that it had received a letter from the diocese of Como warning against proceeding with the story. The letter, which was presented during the broadcast, pointed to the results of church investigations into the matter that found "everything that was alleged turned out to be unfounded."
In an interview with Pecoraro, Father Andrea Stabellini had reportedly admitted when he thought the camera was not filming that he had recommended the investigation continue because he believed that the boys had offered enough evidence to back their allegations.
However, Stabellini was overruled, and Pecoraro had later learned that other church officials had been pressuring the priest to recant.
The Vatican has since announced that it has launched another investigation into the reports, noting that the new probe is aimed at trying to shed "full light on what really happened."