Top Italian judge accused of turning his law school into a misogynistic ‘cult’

The Washington Post/January 9, 2018

By Anna Momigliano

Milan — For the past 10 years, Judge Francesco Bellomo sat on one of Italy's highest courts and taught at a respected law school. At the same, according to newly uncovered documents, he was also pressuring female students into sex and running the school as a “cult.”

Bellomo's case has raised serious questions about accountability for powerful men in a country where the global #Metoo movement against sexual misconduct has gained little traction. The fact that the allegations were kept secret for more than a year has also highlighted a lack of transparency in Italy's major institutions, as well as alleged complacency in tackling cases of sexual abuse.

The allegations against Bellomo were formalized Dec. 28, 2016, when the father of one of his students filed a complaint with the Council of State, Italy’s top body of administrative justice, where Bellomo works. A few weeks later, the Council of State began a disciplinary investigation into Bellomo, a probe that is ongoing. Bellomo has been able to keep his position throughout that time, although he probably will be expelled within the next few days.

The Council of State kept the investigation secret until documents were leaked to the newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano last month; the newspaper published only a summary of the documents but allowed The Washington Post to review them. Only after that leak prompted a media uproar were two criminal investigations opened against Bellomo. Italy's High Council of the Judiciary, which oversees the country's judges, also opened a disciplinary investigation into some of Bellomo’s aides.

In addition to sitting on the Council of State, Bellomo was the director of Diritto e Scienza, a private school that prepares hundreds of graduate students each year for the state exam to become a judge, and also taught classes there. According to the leaked documents, Bellomo allegedly used his authority to have sex with female students.

That behavior is not illegal in Italy and would rarely prompt a disciplinary measure. But when Bellomo's mistresses tried to break off their relationships with him, he allegedly intimidated them by detailing the women’s private lives in the school’s academic journal, threatening gratuitous legal action and, in one instance, sending the police to a woman's house.

Documents also show that Diritto e Scienza was run in a cultlike fashion. Students were divided into two groups: regular students, who paid tuition and could live normal lives, and top students, who received scholarships in exchange for signing contracts in which they pledged loyalty to Bellomo himself, took a vow of secrecy and relinquished the freedom to date whom they pleased (any significant others needed to be approved). They also had to comply with a detail-obsessed dress code that required women to wear miniskirts leaving at least two-thirds of the thighs exposed.

The school also taught a bizarre legal doctrine based on Bellomo's belief in the existence of superior humans, which he called “superior agents,” who could “exercise strong control over nature.” Bellomo argued in a 2015 paper published in the school's academic journal that legal systems needed to recognize the existence of those “superior agents” and apply the law differently to them.

Bellomo's “superior agent” theory — and the fact that he imposed miniskirts on female students — was first disclosed in 2015, when some of his former students mocked his teachings online. A representative for the Council of State declined to say whether the body’s leadership was aware of the theory, but added that it could not act either way because the private opinions of its members are not a source of concern.

The Post could not reach Bellomo, and a representative from his school declined to issue a statement. The victims were identified in the leaked documents, but their names were withheld in Italian media at their request.

The Council of State barred Bellomo from teaching and plans to expel him for abuse of authority and violating the “personal dignity of the students.” The council's disciplinary committee voted narrowly on Nov. 18 to remove Bellomo from office, but he remains until that decision can be ratified by the full council, which is scheduled to meet on Jan. 10.

In a written statement to The Post, Council of State President Alessandro Pajno said that disciplinary action was “activated very swiftly” and followed the “timing set by the law to ascertain the facts and to guarantee the rights of the accused.” A representative also said that the council’s code prohibits preventive suspensions and that its disciplinary procedures are always kept secret until finalized.

But critics have accused the Council of State of contributing to a culture of impunity for powerful men. Alessio Liberati, a judge and legal scholar often critical of Italy’s top institutions, said during a phone interview that although Bellomo's case was “extreme,” top judges in Italy often foster cults of personality and are able to abuse their power.

Eugenio Albamonte, the president of Italy’s national association of judges, criticized the Council of State’s policy of keeping its disciplinary procedures secret. “Transparency is a core principle of the rule of law. When disciplinary hearings are made public, that’s best for everyone,” he said in a telephone interview. Albamonte said that the country should also implement controls on private schools that prepare students for the judge's exam. “They’re unregulated; no one can check what goes on inside,” he said.

“This case paints a worrying picture about how judges are selected and about how they are held accountable,” added Andrea Del Corno, a lawyer and legal scholar in Milan.

But for Albamonte, the stunning nature of the case offers some hope for change. “It should become an occasion to have a serious conversation about transparency and the access to this profession,” he said.

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