The Emilia Romagna region is justly known for the best food in Italy, for the friendly warmth of its inhabitants, and for its artistic heritage and culture. It is almost a paradise on earth.
But not for all, alas. In the past few months, a truly terrible case has come to light: child abuse and child trafficking aided and abetted by government bureaucracy which lasted for 20 years and has affected thousands of children and their families.
It defies belief that corruption so iniquitous could take root in a civilized country in the 21st Century. It’s more like a Boko Haram kidnapping in Nigeria – but carried out in slow motion using paperwork and psychologists rather than guns and soldiers.
Police are still investigating, but what is already known is appalling. The media has christened it the “Angels and Demons” case. Last month a book was published on the case by Italian journalist Maurizio Tortorella, Bibbiano e dintorni (Bibbiano and its neighbours). He says that the scheme was simple and profitable. The Italian government – eager to protect children against abuse – spared no expense when it comes to investigating allegations of abuse. It was relatively easy to remove children from their homes and place them with foster parents, who received stipends for caring for abused children.
This set the stage for disaster. The government had unwittingly created substantial financial incentives for creating an underground industry of child removal. How many children? The numbers cited by Tortorella are incredible: 50,000 children removed from their homes in all of Italy and 100,000 children placed in the care of social services. Every year the government spends at least 4.5 billion euros – which goes into the pockets of psychologists, social workers and foster parents. Much of it is probably legitimate, sadly, because of broken families. But some poured into the pockets of Emila Romagna’s own little Boko Haram.
The plan was simple. False allegations of pedophilia and even of Satanism were fabricated against innocent parents. Sometimes their children’s drawings could be modified in order to suggest that something was wrong, or their words might be given a twisted meaning and so on.
The children were then “encouraged to remember”, with a method called of “progressive revealing”. In simple terms, the children were artificially led to “remember” what they had not actually lived.
Police became suspicious when an unusual number of cases of child abuse were being reported in the region of Unione Val d'Enza, a district made up of seven towns with its headquarters in Bibbiano.
They found that the plot was being orchestrated by “Hansel and Gretel”, a private association of psychologists who knew how to manipulate children, mostly through psychological pressure but occasionally also with physical coercion. These psychologists were generously paid for their services. The small town of Bibbiano alone paid Hansel and Gretel more than 182,000€ over the past four years). In retrospect, the group’s name was grotesquely apposite: innocent children entered the gingerbread house and were eaten up by witches.
Once the children had completed their accusations of their own parents, the families were broken up and the children placed in foster care. Many of the parents were tried and imprisoned. Next, the foster parents were paid for their services.
The win-win process was repeated countless times. The problem was that there were losers, too: the innocent children and their families.
Along with money, ideology played a role in the scandal. Some of the psychologists and foster parents involved were LGBT activists, and they had the not-too-hidden purpose of disrupting “traditional” families and educating children in progressive ideology. A local head of social services, Federica Anghinolfi, is a lesbian activist. The charismatic gay mayor of Bibbiano, Andrea Carletti, does not seem to be involved in trafficking the children, but he is under house arrest, charged with maladministration.
One foster-care lesbian couple prohibited a girl from wearing her hair loose, since this was thought to be “fascinating for the males”; a lesbian foster-mother was filmed screaming against the girl in her care, then leaving her outside in a rainstorm as a punishment for not “remembering” correctly “facts” which had, in fact, never happened.
The details of the story were discovered by the police with wiretaps and hidden cameras. In one of these, a psychologist was filmed telling a child: “Now we must do a big thing together. Do you know what? We must pretend that we are mourning. Your father does not exist as a father any more, it is as if he were dead, we must make a funeral for him”.
Sometimes the psychologists even dressed up as the bad guys of fairy tales in order to impersonate the children’s parents; Christmas presents sent to the children by their parents were piled up in a closet and never given to the children.
This diabolical machine worked for two decades, right up to the present-day, not only in Emilia Romagna but also in some surrounding areas. Some of those who were children 20 years ago are now adults; they haven’t seen their parents for two decades, and – perhaps even more sadly – they are still convinced that they actively participated in bloody murders as children. They distinctly “recall” these gruesome facts, and live with a heartbreaking feeling of guilt. Others have come to hate their parents, because they had been led to believe that their families had rejected them and did not love them anymore.
What remains is the shattered lives of many children, teenagers and young adults, as well as of their families. A trauma marking them for life.
The affair has become a political football. Because the mayor is a member of the centre-left Democratic Party (PD), its opponents wasted no time in blackening the PD brand with the scandal. And, of course, it has sparked allegations that it is due to an LGBT paedophilia conspiracy. At the moment, it is impossible to know what is true and what is fantasy.
The astonishing thing is that similar events happened 20 years. The bureaucrats seemed to have learned nothing. In the case of “the Devils of Lower Modena”, as the media called it in 1997, 16 children were removed from their families after their parents were accused of belonging to a paedophile network of devil worshippers who made night sacrifices of children and animals in cemeteries.
The consequences of this moral panic were disastrous. A priest, don Giorgio Govoni, died of a heart attack in his lawyer’s office after learning that he faced jail for participating in the Satanic rituals. One mother committed suicide.
In a parallel case in the Biella region, near Turin, a whole family – father, mother and two brothers — committed suicide after being falsely accused of sexual abuse.
The moral of the story? First of all, Italy’s child welfare system needs a root-and-branch reformation. It has far more children in care than France or Germany, even though its population is much smaller. Second, children in broken and dysfunctional homes are always going to be vulnerable to abuse. Governments cannot take their eye off the ball for one second.
Chiara Bertoglio is a musician and theologian moonlighting as a journalist. She writes from Italy. Visit her website.