Priest accused of molesting young addicts

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The Independent Online

One of Italy's most colourful priests and the founder of a network of drug rehabilitation centres is expected to be charged with sexually molesting young recovering addicts at the headquarters of his organisation near Perugia in Umbria.

Monsignor Pierino Gelmini, 82, is a household name in Italy, a strong supporter of the political centre-right and a frequent guest on television chat shows. Politicians have warmly reciprocated his support, and in 2005, the former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi famously handed over a cheque for 10 billion lire (equivalent to 1m) to the priest, known as Don Gelmini, on television for the charitable work of his organisation, Comunità Incontro.

Rarely mentioned during his television appearances is the fact that decades ago he was sent to jail for fraud, issuing dud cheques and other offences. And now another scandal appears to be beckoning.

The shadow of accusations of sexual abuse fell across Don Gelmini in the summer when it emerged that he was under investigation for allegedly exploiting some of the charges in his care. It was reported that one of them, Michele Iacobbe, now 34, had first filed a complaint against Don Gelmini in 2002. No action was taken, but he continued to complain about the priest's misbehaviour, which he said dated back to 1999.

Eight other former wards of the organisation added their voice to his, with great detail. Two of them were minors at the time the alleged abuse happened.

The main Italian newspapers reported yesterday that the preliminary judge in the case was on the verge of committing Don Gelmini for trial on a charge of sexual violence.

When the accusations were first made public, Don Gelmini responded angrily that he was a victim of "the Jewish-radical chic lobby". The Vatican has advised the priest to give up his role as head of the organisation only if he is sent for trial. But Silvio Berlusconi has again spoken up for him, and Maurizio Gasparri, a member of the right-wing National Alliance party and a minister in Mr Berlusconi's last government, said the priest's accusers were "very few and of scant credibility".

He was jailed Italy in 1971 after being sentenced to four years for fraud. But, according to an article in Il Messaggero at the time, he "often obliged the prison director to put him in solitary confinement to prevent 'promiscuity' with other inmates".

"These accusations will certainly not prevent me from continuing to embrace my boys," Don Gelmini said, "as I have done for the past 50 years."

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