Rome - An Italian court convicted a priest of molesting boys and sentenced him to 15 years in prison Thursday in a case closely watched because his bishop admitted knowing of the abuse allegations, but didn't remove the priest.
The trial of Rev. Ruggero Conti, a politically connected priest, garnered international headlines last year when his bishop was called to testify about the molestation just as the clerical abuse scandal that erupted in Europe inched closer to the Vatican.
Conti was charged with sexual violence and other charges stemming from accusations by seven boys who frequented his parish on the outskirts of Rome.
In police interrogations, the boys - some as young as 13 at the time of the alleged abuse - said Conti would force them to perform sexual acts on him in his home where he frequently invited them to eat dinner and watch movies.
Conti denied the charges and will appeal, his lawyer said Thursday.
Bishop Gino Reali became the first Italian bishop called to testify in a sex abuse case when he appeared in court last May, a significant milestone given that clerical abuse has long been a taboo subject in this Roman Catholic country.
In his testimony, Reali admitted he knew of rumors Conti had abused boys but didn't remove him or report him to police.
Victims' lawyers have said Reali aided and abetted the crimes because he knew about the abuse allegations but didn't do anything to prevent more abuse.
On Thursday, they said that with Conti's conviction, they were now preparing a formal complaint seeking to have Reali charged.
Caramella Buona, a nonprofit organization that has been providing legal assistance to Conti's victims, acknowledged it would be nearly impossible to see Reali charged given Italy's close institutional ties to the Catholic Church.
"I believe in Italy we're not ready to make this important step against a bishop," the group's president Roberto Mirabile said. But added it was nevertheless important to "look beyond Conti's conviction and recognize the responsibility of the bishop."
When he testified May 20 at Conti's trial, Reali defended his decision not to remove Conti from ministry, saying he investigated the accusations and even convened a church tribunal, but the accusers never showed up.