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Are You Too Old to Have Been Sexually Harassed? In Italy, Maybe

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ROME — In Italy, sexual harassment is a young woman’s problem.

That is apparently the opinion of Italian prosecutors who have dropped a sexual harassment case against the former leader of the powerful Italian soccer federation because they concluded the woman he allegedly groped was too old to be distressed by his advances.

In a report that came to light Thursday, Roman prosecutors decided that Carlo Tavecchio, once arguably the most powerful man in Italian sport, may have groped Elisabetta Cortani, the president of the female division of the Lazio soccer club, but that she had reported it too late, knew him too well, and been alive too long for the charges to stick.

“Unfortunately, that’s what happened,” said Domenico Mariani, Ms. Cortani’s lawyer, who on Thursday morning filed an objection to the prosecutors’ dismissal of the case. He said that the prosecutors had written that harassment was “incompatible” with the accusation made by Ms. Cortani, 53, because, in part, she was too old to have been intimidated by her accused harasser.

“Maybe I am old for them,” Ms. Cortani, a mother of two, said in an interview Thursday. “But I can assure you that I felt in a position of subordination, I felt afraid. Because being in that room meant being in the heart of Italian soccer. And in that room, subordination and fear have no age.”

Vittorio Pisa, a lawyer for Mr. Tavecchio, 74, said his client denied the accusations. Her story was first reported in The Guardian.

The charges come at a time when Italy’s lack of outrage against sexual harassment has made it an old-world outlier as women in the United States and other European countries have aggressively denounced abuse and targeted its perpetrators in entertainment, politics, the media, the food industry and many other sectors of society.

But in Italy, the country that gave the world Silvio Berlusconi and his Bunga Bunga bacchanals with young women, sexual harassment is often seen as an exaggerated label for romantic passes. Here, a transactional approach to sex and power is often taken for granted as the natural order of things.

Most recently, Italian newspapers, commentators and social media users vilified Asia Argento, an Italian actress, after she accused Harvey Weinstein of rape in a hotel room, arguing that she knew all too well what she was doing in that room.

Women in the Italian parliament sought to call attention to the way Italy’s patriarchal society ignored harassment by sharing their stories in a chamber — filled only with women.

Examples of Italy’s anachronistic approach to harassment abound. Lawyers in Florence recently sought to ask if two alleged rape victims wore underwear. In another court, judges determined that a Sicilian man’s groping was an example of sophomoric humor, not sexual intent.

Mr. Tavecchio is already a maligned figure in Italy for presiding over Italy’s football federation when the team failed to qualify for this year’s World Cup, which started Thursday.

But Italians have been less concerned with his other evident failings, which, besides the alleged sexual harassment, include a history of racially insensitive remarks. He once depicted African players as banana eaters. Europe’s football association banned him for six months, but the Italian federation nevertheless elected him to the top spot in Italian football.

He has also been recorded saying he preferred to stay away from gays and Jews. But Mr. Tavecchio apparently had no such aversion to Ms. Cortani.

With the Lazio soccer club, Ms. Cortani was a vocal advocate for her players, and, at times, Mr. Tavecchio. She can be seen in YouTube videos wearing a tie with the Lazio insignia and speaking in support of Mr. Tavecchio, thanking him for the work he had done and hoping that he remained president.

Her lawyer, Mr. Mariani, said that it took her years to find the courage to make the charge against him and that she feared retribution. She said that she began telling police about what happened months before Italy failed to qualify for the World Cup on Nov. 14.

Ms. Cortani wrote about violence against women on a Lazio soccer blog on Nov. 4.

“I certainly know that many women have and often want to forget how much they have gone through for shame, for reticence and for fear of being pilloried,” she wrote. “This true motive for silence doesn’t just happen to actresses and beautiful models, it happens everywhere and everyday.”

On Nov. 24, she filed a complaint that alleged that in 2015, during a business meeting in Mr. Tavecchio’s office, he complimented the then 49-year-old on her physique and sought to kiss her while touching her breasts. She excused herself and left the room, her lawyer said.

The next year, ahead of another meeting with Mr. Tavecchio she consulted police officers with whom she was acquainted and, pretending to speak for a friend, asked what advice they would have for a woman seeking to demonstrate that a boss harassed and groped her behind closed doors. She did not name Mr. Tavecchio at the time, Mr. Mariani said.

The officers suggested she get video evidence catching her superior in the act.

Mr. Cortani returned to the office in August 2016 to speak with Mr. Tavecchio about a team’s application to a regional championship. This time she brought a miniature video camera fastened to a pair of glasses that she hung from the neckline of her dress, Mr. Mariani said.

The camera recorded Mr. Tavecchio speaking in a vulgar manner and inquiring about her sexual activity, until he unknowingly stopped the video recording while allegedly trying to grope her.

“Touching her breasts, he shut off the camera,” said Mr. Mariani, who said that the device continued to record audio, and that Ms. Cortani could be heard fending off Mr. Tavecchio’s advances and slipping away.

The prosecutors made a motion to dismiss the case, Mr. Mariani said, because his client reported it too long after the harassment allegedly occurred.

He said that Italian law gives private citizens six months to report sexual harassment, but that people harassed by a public official, which he contends that Mr. Tavecchio was because of his connection to the Italian National Olympic Committee, are vulnerable to litigation for up to six years. In the weeks ahead, a judge will rule on this and several other legal questions.

Mr. Mariani said he and Ms. Cortani became aware of the prosecution’s decision, and grounds for dismissing the case about 20 days ago. He said that the decision enraged Ms. Cortani, who he said told him she would live to see the day that a judge made it clear that a woman of any age can have fear of harassment.

“Italian women have to fight, and not be afraid to press charges because it is always worth it,” said Ms. Cortani in the interview. “It doesn’t matter if you are believed or not, but we must begin to demand respect. Italy has to develop in its culture.”