Clergy Abuse Survivors Mark Summit Anniversary With Protest at Vatican

According to the victims, there has been insufficient progress in making meaningful changes since the 2019 summit.

ECA (Ending Clergy Abuse) activists, deaf victims of childhood sexual abuse by Catholic clergy from Argentina, attorneys and survivors from different countries attend a twilight vigil Feb. 22 in Rome.
ECA (Ending Clergy Abuse) activists, deaf victims of childhood sexual abuse by Catholic clergy from Argentina, attorneys and survivors from different countries attend a twilight vigil Feb. 22 in Rome. (photo: Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)

VATICAN CITY — A group of clerical abuse survivors gathered in Rome on Feb. 21, one year after the Vatican summit of bishops on clerical sex abuse, to accuse Pope Francis of knowing about the abuse of Argentine deaf children by an Italian priest but not acting to stop it.

The group, who included some of the Argentinian survivors as well as advocacy leaders for abuse victims, also said little progress had been made since the Feb. 21-24 summit last year on protection of minors in the Church.

In a Feb. 13 statement, the survivors argued that the Vatican and Pope Francis could have acted to prevent the widespread sexual and physical violence perpetrated against them at the Antonio Provolo Institute, an educational and religious institution for the deaf in the province of Mendoza, Argentina.

More than 20 deaf victims testified last year to being sexually assaulted and physically abused at the Institute from 2005 to 2016, some from the age of five. Nine more alleged offenders are expected to go on trial, including two nuns, later this month.

Italian priest Father Nicola Corradi, 83, was identified as the ringleader of the pedophile ring who his accusers say had already been reported to the Vatican in 2009 for molesting deaf children in Verona, Italy. Both he and Argentine priest Father Horacio Corbacho, 59, were convicted in November and respectively sentenced to 42 and 45 years in jail.

“The Holy See and Pope Francis were notified repeatedly by Corradi’s Italian victims that the priest had transferred to Argentina, where he again was working at schools for deaf children,” maintained the advocacy group for abuse survivors, Ending Clergy Abuse, in a Feb. 13 press release.

The group, which included some of the Italian deaf survivors from Verona, said the Pope and Vatican officials “knew of the abuse” but continued to “enable the obstruction of justice” by sending two Vatican envoys to investigate the allegations in 2017 rather than “cooperate fully with the criminal investigation.” Instead, they said, the envoys “withheld crucial information from prosecutors.”

The abuse survivors, along with representatives from Xumek, a Mendoza-based human rights organization, Ending Clergy Abuse: Global Justice Project (ECA), The Archangel Foundation and, had come to Rome after many of them had spent three days meeting with U.N. officials in Geneva where they presented evidence from their own abuse and human rights violations.

They argued that the Holy See had violated at least two U.N. human rights treaties to which it is a signatory, and that some of the crimes in Mendoza occurred after the Holy See was explicitly rebuked and warned by the U.N. in 2014 for “systematically” placing the Church’s reputation over the protection of child victims.

Meeting on Feb. 21 in front of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, they called for a meeting with the Pope, and to have access to their files in the CDF now that the “pontifical secret” has been lifted — one of a series of measures that came out of the February summit.


Measures Taken Since the Summit

The Pope lifted the pontifical secret restriction in December so that documents in a penal trial can be accessed by authorities and interested parties (but not the public). The pontifical secret is a rule of confidentiality protecting sensitive information regarding Church governance, similar to “classified” or “confidential” documents in civil governments.

Other measures put in place after last year’s summit included Pope Francis’ 2019 motu proprio Vos Estis Lux Mundi (You Are the Light of the World) that, from June 1, required all clergy, religious and bishops to report abuse cases and cover-up by superiors, and mandated the establishment of  systems in every diocese for reporting abuse.

The papal decree also introduced what is called a “metropolitan model” whereby credible allegations against a suffragan bishop must now be investigated by a metropolitan archbishop, mandated by the Holy See, who must then keep the Holy See updated and complete the investigation within 90 days.

It was the “first time” that the Church had introduced such a system of “accountability in cases of negligence or of cover-up” by bishops, religious or other Church organizations, said Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors and president of the Center for Child Protection at the Pontifical Gregorian University, in a Feb. 20 interview with Vatican Media.

Father Zollner, who also said the Vatican had now allowed lay canonists to be involved in canonical processes of abuse cases, told Vatican Media that since the summit he had seen “a deeper awareness and a greater willingness” among bishops’ conferences around the world “to really tackle the issue and to do what needs to be done so that young people and vulnerable adults are safer in our Church.”

Given these developments and in contrast to the usual pace of the Vatican, decisions are now moving with “lightning speed,” Father Zollner said.


Survivors’ Skepticism

But abuse survivor Shaun Dougherty, who was sexually abused as a child by a priest in the diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, Pennsylvania, remains unconvinced, telling the Register he does not see any real progress — rather he still sees the same lack of accountability as before.

“Metropolitan bishops are still human and will tend to cover for friends,” he said. “It’s human nature, especially when you’re part of a fraternity, and this is no average fraternity.”

Dougherty believes the Vatican has merely rebranded the 2002 Dallas Charter that drew up a comprehensive set of procedures for tackling clerical sex abuse, but which, as the Theodore McCarrick case and other cases have shown, has “proven the bishops can’t be trusted to patrol themselves.”

Peter Isley of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) who was also standing outside the CDF on Feb. 21, said many were hoping that the Church would make “zero tolerance” on abuse cases part of Church law “but that has not happened.” He noted that after the Dallas Charter, which he called “terribly significant,” the U.S. has been the only country to implement zero tolerance in canon law and asked: “Why isn’t everywhere else?”

Asked about the danger of convicting or punishing falsely accused priests as a result of such a policy, Isley said it is “absolutely” necessary to have due process, as he believes that “the only thing that’s as bad as being assaulted as a child by a priest is a falsely accused priest or cleric.” He argued that what is important is to “try to bring victims forward” so there must be “rights for victims and rights for the accused.” For this reason, he said, any system must be “rational, reliable” and there “has to be oversight” of any investigations.


‘Very Small, Incremental Change’

James Egan, founder of The Archangel Foundation, an organization providing a waypoint for survivors to come forward and be helped to recovery, welcomed the release of Vos Estis Lex Mundi and the efforts of two USCCB meetings on handling abuse cases, but he said too many of the new measures “seem completely toothless” as there is “no penalty in not following them.”

But he said the Vatican is moving, even if it’s changing at a pace “that’s not comfortable for them,” and although he would like to see the Church doing “much more,” what he finds most encouraging is the pressure “all of civil society” is exerting on the Church and thereby “forcing very small, incremental change.”

Egan, who said he was not abused but left the seminary when he realized the extent of the crisis and “what was really going on,” said all involved in the matter of improving the Church’s handling of such abuse would like to see zero tolerance implemented. “Everyone would like that,” he said. “We need it to happen to see the Church is safe” and for practicing faithful “to know they’re safe when they go.”

Mary Dispenza, who advocates on behalf of abused nuns for SNAP, said that she and others had come to the Vatican to keep the pressure on the Vatican and the Pope to ensure they “do the right thing” and to show that her and other campaigners for survivors are “not going away.”

Like others, she welcomed the lifting of the pontifical secret even if she doubted the motives (Dispenza believes the decision to lift it may have to do less with survivors rights and more to do with the pontifical secret sometimes appearing to implicate bishops in a cover-up, when they weren’t). But “I can’t say much has changed,” she added, to make bishops “more accountable.” And like others, she also regretted that zero tolerance has still not been implemented and blames the Pope for not doing this. “He could mandate, insist on having consequences for bishops who are still covering up.”

Dispenza mostly focuses on abused nuns, an issue, she said, that is shrouded “in darkness” and was not discussed at all at the summit. Dispenza maintains that “thousands of survivors” of nun abuse can be found “in orphanages, indigenous communities and everywhere else seeking justice and healing.”


Listening to Victims

Father Zollner stressed the importance of listening to these victims so they feel they are “really listened to” and that those responsible do “whatever they can” to ensure people feel safe. This kind of safety and professional standards, he said, not only need to be better taught and understood, but also implemented.

Even though other survivors have managed to see the Pope in the past at his Santa Marta residence, and the Pope has said he regularly meets abuse victims on Fridays, the U.S. survivors were not given an audience on Feb. 21, which was also a Friday.

Instead, the deaf survivors delivered a letter addressed to the Pope to the CDF and the entire group of abuse survivors held a vigil on Saturday evening in the gardens of Castel Sant’Angelo near the Vatican. The Register asked the Vatican Press Office whether they would be responding to their request for an audience or making a statement but received no response.

But the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors did answer, issuing a statement that it has “made it a priority” to respond to correspondence from people who have been either directly or indirectly affected by clerical sexual abuse.

“We know acknowledging their outreach is a very important — indeed fundamental — in establishing clear and transparent communication and that it is also a learning opportunity for us,” the commission said.

But it added that access to such files was beyond its competency which only belongs to the CDF. The commission nevertheless invited any of the abuse victims to write to them so they could “share any concerns” with experts.

They could then “identify gaps and needs” in the Church’s response and “make proposals” to the Pope and those curia offices that have competency.

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.