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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Italian Court's Rulings Ruffle Modern Society

ROME -- According to Italy's supreme court, a husband can beat his unfaithful wife, parents can't beat their children, but sexual abuse of kids is sometimes understandable.


Rulings like these in recent months have created an outcry in Italy. Critics say they reflect a sometimes misguided effort by the judges who are pressed to keep up with a rapidly changing society.


Since the boom years of the 1960s that lifted Italy from postwar impoverishment, Italians are marrying later, having fewer children and divorcing more frequently. More and more women are working. The Roman Catholic Church's hold has weakened. Smaller families have weakened the tradition of old aunts or grandmothers dispensing advice within the clan.


"Now there's a tendency to take family controversies to court,'' said Miriam Mafai, a prominent social commentator. "This is a pretty new fact for us.''


Add that to a complicated, contradictory judicial system that Mafai says is too dependent on the discretion of prosecutors. The result is the sometimes controversial and conflicting rulings from the seven-member high court, whose decisions are considered non-binding as precedents.


?An ex-wife has the right to alimony while living with a boyfriend, even if he is wealthy. The boyfriend, the court said, has no legal obligation to maintain her.


?But women who have "clearly ulterior motives'' are in a more tenuous position. A 47-year-old woman who divorced her 78-year-old husband after only 40 days did not have a right to alimony.


?Failure to pay alimony is no longer a crime but merely a civil offense. The legal duty of "material assistance'' depends on cohabitation, the court said.


?An abused wife who flees is not considered to have abandoned her husband.


?But a husband who hits his wife for being unfaithful is not guilty of mistreatment. His actions must be considered in context -- that of a wife whose behavior is "contrary to the innate duties of marriage,'' the court said.


Feminists, female members of parliament and a cabinet minister criticized the ruling as setting back women's right by decades. The judges, all elderly men, "want to put woman in a traditional role,'' Lagostena Bassi said.


?Parental beating of children for punishment is illegal. The decision conflicted with another supreme court decision just months earlier, in which the court said a foster-care worker who beat orphans did not commit a violent crime.


?In a case that caused consternation among children's advocates, the court said sexual abuse of children can, in certain circumstances, be excused if it happens in a degraded home environment.


The girl in question had been abused since the age of six by older relatives. The court said the defendants had for years lived in a home where "relations were dominated uniquely or almost always by instinct.'' The crime of sexual violence did not occur because the acts happened "in an altogether particular social, moral and cultural environment.''


"That is monstrous,'' Mafai said. "There is no environment which justifies violence against children.''