Altar boys were abused by priests inside The Vatican.

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Altar boys were abused by priests inside The Vatican.

Former altar boys have claimed they were molested by priests inside the Vatican, as a lingering scandal surrounding widespread abuse in the Catholic Church erupts at its headquarters once again.

Several anonymous former altar boys at the Vatican’s youth seminary alleged at least two priests kissed and fondled three of them in the Nineties.

The claims will be aired on Sunday on Le Iene (“The Hyenas”), an Italian investigative TV programme, which first broke allegations in 2017 that the senior seminarian, now a priest, had sexually abused teenagers who served as altar boys at papal masses in St Peter’s Basilica.

The fresh cases come to light two months after the Vatican announced Father Gabriele Martinelli and Father Enrico Radice, who allegedly covered up his suspected crimes, would stand trial over claims made in the first TV programme.

In one of the new cases, an alleged victim said a priest sat him on his lap and fondled his penis. In another case, an alleged victim marvelled how Le Iene had heard about things he had only told his confessor.

In conjunction with previous testimony gathered by Le Iene, an impression emerges of a closed, religious atmosphere in which sexualised touching was normalised for boys as young as 11.

The 2017 testimony suggested a series of priests, bishops and even a cardinal had covered up the alleged sins for years.

In a statement issued ahead of the programme, the Vatican press office said a decision on whether to issue indictments in the original case was “imminent”.

The statement said any new elements or evidence of other crimes that emerge would be considered by Vatican prosecutors in a new investigation.

The case concerns the opaque world of the St Pius X youth seminary, located inside a palazzo just a few steps from the residence of Pope Francis. The seminary houses about a dozen boys aged 11 to 18, who serve as altar boys at papal masses.

A small Italian religious order called the Opera Don Folchi runs the seminary. The group has described the allegations as “mud”, a “violent attack on the church” and nothing more than “calumny and falsifications”.

One of the victims in Sunday’s programme claims that a priest who was managing the school’s communal showers attempted to take his dressing gown off, according to The Guardian.

“He wanted to undress me, I tried to wriggle away,” the victim says. “I was 13 years old. I fell to the ground and asked him: ‘What are you doing?’. I then got up and ran away.”

The Catholic Church has been rocked by thousands of reported incidences of sexual abuse across the globe. In response, Pope Francis issued a law earlier this year that requires all Catholic priests and nuns to report sexual abuse and cover-ups by their superiors.

But in October, the lead counsel of an independent inquiry into child sex abuse in the UK criticised the Catholic Church’s lack of cooperation with the investigation.

Brian Altman QC described the church’s “refusal to provide the inquiry with all the evidence it has sought” as “very disappointing”.

The most senior cleric implicated so far in the global scandal, Cardinal George Pell, was on Wednesday granted the chance to appeal his convictions for molesting two 13-year-old choirboys, by Australia’s highest court.

Pell was previously the Vatican’s finance minister.