PALERMO, Italy (Reuters) - An Italian man accused of groping female colleagues is not guilty of sexual harassment because he was driven by an immature sense of humor rather than a desire for sexual gratification, a court in Sicily ruled.
The ruling drew condemnation in a country where the national statistics bureau says around a third of women between 16 and 70 years old have suffered physical or sexual violence.
A junior colleague accused the 65-year-old of touching her sexually. A second woman said he treated her "as if I were a little girl ... as if he were giving me a light slap on the behind", according to a document explaining the reasons for the ruling.
The court in Palermo said it was proven he had behaved as the women alleged but acquitted him nonetheless.
The judges said the contact was not "lascivious" and the boss, who was described as being "severe" in his workplace dealings, was not touching his staff for sexual pleasure.
"Objectively, it was brought on by an immature and inappropriate sense of humor, mixed in with a veiled abuse of power and an albeit improper way of establishing hierarchical relationships in the office."
Commentators and a labor union lambasted the ruling.
"The Palermo court's sentence is worthy of lawmakers in Saudi Arabia," well-known commentator Massimo Gramellini wrote in a front-page opinion piece in La Stampa newspaper.
"The august assembly seems to suggest that the women who were felt up caused the real offense."
The UIL labor union's Sicilian branch said it was "amazed and puzzled" by the decision. In a statement published by a local newspaper, union representatives said:
"(The ruling) ignores the sensitivity and dignity of the working women and at the same time unfathomably permits the sexual violence, which was perpetrated even if on a small scale."
(Reporting by Wladimiro Pantaleone, Writing by Isla Binnie, Editing by Gavin Jones and Alison Williams)