Acquittal of Janitor, Accused of Touching Student, Fuels Outrage in Italy

For days, many Italians have flooded social media with two unusual calls to outrage: “#10secondi” and “#palpatabreve,” or “10 seconds” and “brief grope.”

The hashtags refer to a court sentence, made public this week in Rome, that acquitted a 66-year-old school janitor who was accused of improperly touching a 17-year-old student, including by sticking his hands into her pants and touching her bottom.

In court, the janitor admitted some touching, saying the teenager had been pulling up her pants and — mimicking her gesture — he had reached out and lifted her pants as a joke, but he denied putting his hands inside her trousers. The student testified in court last February that the entire episode lasted between five and 10 seconds.

In its decision last week, a court in Rome ruled that the janitor’s behavior could not be construed as either libidinous or lustful because it had taken place at the school, a public place in front of other students; because it had only lasted “a handful of seconds”; and because the janitor had apologized immediately after and made light of the episode. The prosecutor’s office has until July 21 to appeal the verdict.

Uproar followed the public release of the ruling — along with renewed conversations about sexual harassment and abuse in Italy, where rights activists have long criticized a culture of ingrained sexism. The ruling also inspired a rush of videos showing women and men touching their own breasts while a timer counts down 10 seconds: Some silently stare into the camera, some perform skits mocking the decision, some sing jingles they have written.

In the video that kicked off the trend, the actor and comedian Paolo Camilli stares into the distance and violently mauls his chest. “Less than 10 seconds have passed, if this isn’t harassment, then I don’t know,” he says in the video, which has been seen on TikTok and Instagram thousands of times.

In a telephone interview, Mr. Camilli, who gained international recognition after appearing in “The White Lotus” television series, called the court ruling absurd.

“My first thought was, how can a person measure 10 seconds” while they were being molested, he said. “And then,” he said, he realized that “10 seconds can be an infinity” for someone experiencing a painful situation.

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, many Italians’ dismissive attitude toward allegations of sexual harassment set the country apart from the United States and other European countries where many of the authorities, as well as corporations and prominent members of the public, denounced abuse and targeted its perpetrators.

But several court cases in recent years have provoked anger in Italy about entrenched gender stereotypes and the difficulty of legal cases surrounding abuse charges. Last week’s ruling set off a new round of debate, bringing in everyone from lawyers to influencers.

“A woman’s body is not owned by men. It is not owned by anyone, just women themselves,” wrote Francesco Cicconetti, an Italian influencer with more than 200,000 followers on Instagram. “You don’t have the right to touch them, not even for one second, let alone five or 10.”

The incident at the school took place in April 2022, and the case went to trial late last year; the student and the janitor were identified only by their initials in the court ruling. The three judges of the presiding court — who all happened to be women — agreed with the defense that because of the public setting, in the atrium of the school with dozens of students present, the janitor’s actions did not have a lustful intent. The judges concluded that he had committed no crime.

The janitor’s lawyer, Claudia Pirolli, said that articles and videos protesting the ruling had not adequately presented the public context in which the episode had taken place, which she said ruled out flagrant sexual assault.

“It’s not what it seems,” she said, adding that her client had a clean record and was a year from retiring. “A conviction would have destroyed him,” she said.

A lawyer for the student, who is now an adult, could not be reached for comment.

Some legal observers said that the ruling clashed with past decisions by Italy’s highest court.

“The Supreme Court in Italy had already clarified that the intent of the molester — libidinous or otherwise — is not relevant when establishing if he or she is guilty of sexual harassment,” said Marco Bellandi Giuffrida, a court clerk in Cremona who has written about the ruling.

The Rome court had reasoned incorrectly, he said in an interview, both because intent was “difficult to assess,” and because it presented “a very strong burden of proof for the molested person.” He expected the prosecutor in Rome, who had asked that the defendant be sentenced to 42 months in prison, to appeal.

The case may have touched a raw nerve in Italy because of its uneven record when it comes to the issue of violence, abuse and sexual harassment against women, and a mixed public attitude toward the issues.

The national statistics institute, ISTAT, said in a 2019 report that nearly a quarter of the population felt that women could provoke sexual assault by the way they dressed, while nearly 40 percent felt that women could avoid sexual intercourse if they really didn’t want it.

Still, many court cases have drawn outrage, including an infamous 1999 ruling that suggested that a woman cannot be sexually assaulted if she were wearing jeans because, the ruling contended, the pants are impossible to remove unless she helps — what became known as the “jeans alibi.” A Turin court last year cleared a man of sexual assault because the woman had left the bathroom door open, which the court ruled was “an invitation.”

But Italy’s highest court often overturns these sorts of decisions, said Elena Biaggioni, a lawyer and vice president of D.i.Re, a national anti-violence network run by women’s organizations. “Its rulings are very sophisticated in the reasonings, especially when it comes to sexual violence,” she said.

International institutions have repeatedly upbraided Italy on this front. After seven men were acquitted of charges of sexually assaulting a woman, the European Court of Human Rights condemned an Italian court, saying it was upholding presumptions and stereotypes of female sexuality and essentially victim blaming. The European court wrote that the Italian court’s reasonings were “guilt-inducing, moralizing and conveyed sexist stereotypes.”

A Council of Europe group that monitors violence against women has found that sexual assault convictions are very low in Italy. And last year, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, a group affiliated with the United Nations, said that an Italian woman who accused a man of attacking her had been discriminated against, as a result “of deeply rooted stereotypes” that led Italian courts to favor the male defendant over her.

“It’s a cultural question,” said Ms. Biaggioni, adding that in the Roman court’s ruling, the man’s account had appeared to persuade the judges more than the minor’s version.

“But if you rule that it’s fine for an older man to touch a 17-year-old’s bottom in school, you are minimizing those actions,” she said.

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