Italian Court's Controversial Ruling on Sexual Harassment Ignites Uproar

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A School Custodian's Acquittal after Groping a 17-Year-Old Student Triggers Online Protest; Court Says an Act Must Last at Least 10 Seconds to be Classified as Harassment

The acquittal of a 66-year-old school custodian who groped a 17-year-old student's buttocks has set Italy ablaze, fueling public outrage and sparking an online protest. The custodian, who claimed his actions were a 'joke', was acquitted by judges at a Rome court as they argued that to qualify as sexual assault or harassment, an act must last a least 10 seconds. This decision was based on their assessment that the custodian's contact with the student's buttocks lasted "between five to ten seconds."

The incident took place in April 2022 in a high school in Rome. The student recounted her ordeal as she walked up the stairs with a friend towards her class. Suddenly, she felt a hand pulling down her trousers, slipping beneath her underwear, and touching her buttocks. She turned around to face the custodian, who retorted: "You know, I'm joking." This disturbing event led the student to file a police complaint against the custodian.

Antonio Abuela, the 66-year-old accused, admitted to touching the girl's buttocks without her consent, brushing off the action as a jest. The prosecution in Rome demanded a sentence of three and a half years for Abuela, but the judges, basing their decision on the '10-second rule', concluded that no crime was committed as the act didn't last that long.

Following the controversial ruling and the ensuing public anger, young Italians took to social media to protest. They posted videos of themselves touching their own bodies, including intimate areas, for ten seconds - a symbolic act to demonstrate their objection to the court's unsettling benchmark for sexual harassment.

Expressing her disappointment over the custodian's acquittal, the student said, "The judges ruled that he was joking? Well, for me, it wasn't a joke. In those seconds, I could feel his hands on my body." She detailed how the man had approached her from behind without a word, slipped his hands under her trousers and underwear, and groped her buttocks.

Feeling doubly betrayed by her school and the legal system, the student said, "I'm starting to think that it's a mistake to trust institutions." She expressed fear that the court's ruling might deter girls and women from revealing instances of sexual harassment and assault they have endured.

The Student Union in Lazio, the district which encompasses Rome, responded to the Rome court's ruling, expressing their shock at the justification for the acquittal. They asserted, "We don't feel safe anywhere - especially in schools, which should be teaching people to be aware of violence and oppression and to combat them."