Vatican's former France envoy on trial for sexual assault

Paris (AFP) –


Pope Francis's former envoy to France went on trial in Paris on Tuesday for sexual assault following accusations he groped five men during public ceremonies.

Luigi Ventura, a 75-year-old Italian archbishop, was not in court for the proceedings.

Ventura's lawyer Solange Doumic said his doctor had advised him against travelling from Italy to France due to the health risks posed by the coronavirus pandemic.

The allegations against Ventura caused deep embarrassment for the Vatican when they surfaced in February 2019, coming amid a slew of revelations about clerical sex abuse that have rocked the Catholic Church.

He was stripped of his diplomatic immunity in July 2019 so that he could be put on trial -- a first for a Vatican envoy.

Paris city hall first reported the cleric to police after an official from its international relations team accused Ventura of touching his buttocks three times during a New Year's ceremony in January 2019.

Mathieu de la Souchere told the court Ventura got out of his car and while walking next to him, "touched" his buttocks telling him he was "very handsome." Then in the lift he "fondled" him again.

"Very ill at ease," he left the room where Ventura was waiting for the Paris mayor and told colleagues what had happened.

But Ventura followed him and made the same gesture again, in front of witnesses, he said.

- 'Latin temperament' -

The former France envoy has denied this, saying he has a "Latin temperament" and "bad vision," and describing a "friendly greeting" devoid of "any sexual connotation."

"My daily job was to work with ambassadors. Never has an ambassador, no matter how Latin, behaved like this," retorted de la Souchere.

Four other men later came forward with similar allegations against Ventura relating to public events in France between January 2018 and February 2019.

They include a senior foreign ministry official and a seminarian who accused the bishop of groping him during a mass.

Ventura, who had been stationed in Paris since 2009, resigned in December after reaching the 75-year age limit for the job.

He had previously served as papal envoy to Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chile and Canada.

Sexual assault carries a maximum five-year prison sentence and a fine of 75,000 euros in France.

Doumic claimed that it was Ventura himself who had asked to have his diplomatic immunity waived "in order to be able to explain himself before the courts".

But his accusers, who joined the criminal case as civil plaintiffs, said they fought hard to have his immunity quashed.

The Catholic Church has been rocked by a wave of allegations detailing decades of sexual abuse by clerics around the world, mostly involving minors.

On Tuesday, the Vatican denied it had covered up years of abuse by ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick.

A 450-page report on who knew what -- and whether three consecutive popes overlooked McCarrick's abuse of at least one teenage boy and a number of male seminarians -- said Polish pope John Paul II had ignored warnings about the cleric's behaviour.