SAVONA, Italy — On camping trips, Francesco Zanardi and other boys from his local parish always dreaded being called to sleep in their priest’s tent.
“We all knew what would happen to the boy in the tent,” said Mr. Zanardi, who said he was first abused by his priest at age 11.
Speaking in Savona, a port city in northwestern Italy that gave the church two popes, Mr. Zanardi, 48, said the victimization went on for years, traumatizing him and leading to a substance abuse problem.
It also led him to help found Rete L’Abuso, the first support group for clerical abuse survivors in Italy — a country that, in an added indignity, often doesn’t seem to care.
That indifference is largely due, experts say, to how tightly intertwined the Roman Catholic Church is with Italian culture and history. Even today, though the Vatican and its popes don’t wield the power they used to, parish churches and priests often play a central role in the life of a community.
Italy’s record on this issue is in the spotlight this week, with Pope Francis having convened a meeting at the Vatican meant to help church leadership remedy the scourge of abuse.
This month, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child gave Italy a failing grade on protecting minors from sexual exploitation.
In particular, the committee expressed concern “about the numerous cases of children having been sexually abused by religious personnel of the Catholic Church” and the “low number of investigations and criminal prosecutions” of those crimes.
And while other countries have taken a hard look at the problem of clerical abuse, Italy has approached it with something closer to a media blackout.
Experts consider Italy’s response to be one of the worst among Western nations, comparable to that of some African and Asian churches in which denial about clerical sex abuse is still rampant.
In Italian, “there is no corresponding word for accountability,” said the Rev. Hans Zollner, one of the Vatican’s top experts in safeguarding minors and an organizer of this week’s meeting.
“This says something,” he told reporters recently. If a word doesn’t exist, he said, “it means that in this culture there is not much reflection on this.”
In a separate interview, Father Zollner also pointed out that avoiding “brutta figura” — a bad image — ranked highly among the country’s social values.
Recognizing the problem, the Italian Bishops’ Conference is redrafting its 2014 guidelines for protecting minors. The ones currently in use, they acknowledge, are too legalistic and not sensitive to survivors.
Though the empty pews of many parishes suggest that much of Italy’s population is Catholic in name only, cultural ties to the church are still strong.
Festivities for a city’s patron saint sweep up citizens, churchgoers or not, and some 8,000 church-run oratories throughout Italy offer after-school programs and other activities for children. The heroes of two of the most popular shows on Italy’s national broadcaster are a priest and a nun.
“Italians tend to know their parish priest, so if they hear of an abuse case somewhere they say, ‘Yes, it’s horrendous, but our priest is not like that,’ ” Monsignor Lorenzo Ghizzoni, the Italian church’s top official responsible for protecting minors, said in an interview in his office in Ravenna.
Such denial often seems to be echoed in secular institutions.
Survivors accuse the government and the judiciary, which has been slow to investigate clerical abuse cases, of silence on the issue. Prosecutors have often said that their hands are tied by expired statutes of limitations.
Italian politicians vie to stay on the good side of the Vatican. Same-sex civil unions were approved only in 2016, and the final draft was watered down. Italy still has one of the most restrictive laws in Europe on medically assisted fertility.
There are no reliable statistics on the number of victims of clerical abuse in Italy. But tracking cases through confidential tips and news reports, usually in local papers, Mr. Zanardi’s group, Rete L’Abuso — whose name means The Abuse Network — has created a map of alleged offenses.
In one notable case, in 2010, Vatican investigators looked into reports of abuses at the Antonio Provolo Institute, a Catholic school for the deaf in Verona.
Alessandro Vantini was 6 when he arrived at the Provolo in 1950. He says he was repeatedly abused by priests there. He remembers calling for help once, to no avail: “We were deaf, no one could hear us.”
“I cried,” he said. “I felt dead.”
A rare Italian book on clerical abuse, published in November, estimates that since 2000, 300 priests have been accused. It says just 140 of them were investigated, and that very few went to jail, even if convicted. Few such cases have been covered in the national news.
When Pope Francis acknowledged for the first time this month that sexual abuse of nuns by priests and bishops had been a persistent problem, reporters from around the world knocked on the door of Lucetta Scaraffia, whose article in Women Church World, a magazine distributed with the Vatican’s newspaper, had cast a spotlight on the problem.
“Incredibly, not one Italian newspaper” came to interview her, Ms. Scaraffia said. “Because in Italy there is a fear of upsetting the church.”
When the Italian news media does focus on clergy abuse, some outlets have concentrated on the sexuality of the victim.
Mr. Zanardi, who is gay, recalled that when he began speaking out for survivors, some news outlets identified him as “the gay activist” who was denouncing the church. He called it “a way to discredit me.”
Some analysts who say Pope Francis has been slow to respond to the abuse crisis point to the fact that he is surrounded by Italian advisers in an essentially Italian bureaucracy, in the heart of Italy.
“That is part of the Vatican bubble in which Pope Francis operates,” said Massimo Faggioli, a professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University.
Some Italian bishops say change is on the way. The bishops’ conference is in the process of setting up a national service to help less experienced bishops handle accusations of abuse.
“The principle of the good of minors comes first,” said Monsignor Ghizzoni, the church official in Ravenna.
“It’s true that in good conscience, bishops once thought it was more important to avoid scandal in the institution,” but that has changed, he said. “We have to react, not hide.”
Some survivors, and advocates for them, are skeptical.
“The Vatican is an economic and political power in Italy, it hushes everything up,” said Marco Lodi Rizzini, the spokesman for a group of Provolo Institute alumni.
Gianni Bisoli says he was abused for seven years at the Provolo, starting when he was 9 years old. That was more than half a century ago. Some of his abusers are dead, but others are still alive, he said.
“The pope talks and talks, but doesn’t do anything,” Mr. Bisoli said. He said there were tangible steps that Francis could take instead.
“The abusers should be sent away,” he said. “Laicized. But the church wants to avoid ‘brutta figura’, so they keep priests even if they are bad.”