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Police block sex-abuse victims in Vatican protest

But marchers allowed to leave letters at door

Gary Bergeron of Boston (left) was one of the organizers of the gathering of clergy sex abuse victims in Rome. Gary Bergeron of Boston (left) was one of the organizers of the gathering of clergy sex abuse victims in Rome. (Vincenzo Pinto/ AFP/ Getty Images)
By Nicole Winfield
Associated Press / November 1, 2010

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ROME — Italian paramilitary police blocked a boulevard leading to the Vatican to prevent a march yesterday by some 100 survivors of clergy sex abuse from reaching St. Peter’s Square, but later allowed two protesters to leave letters from the abused at the Holy See’s doorstep.

The pair, including one of the organizers, Gary Bergeron of Boston, were escorted by police as they carried thick, lit candles to the edge of the square. Then, after the two were told to put out the candles, Vatican security guards accompanied them to the foot of the staircase leading to the Apostolic Palace’s bronze entrance doors.

There, according to Bergeron’s account, the two deposited the sealed letters at the foot of the stairs, and after their passports were examined they were accompanied to the obelisk in the middle of the square. There they were allowed to leave a dozen stones, to indicate a symbolic path marker so other abuse victims might know they have company in their suffering.

Bergeron then went into a meeting with a Vatican spokesman, Rev. Federico Lombardi, who earlier had beaten a hasty retreat to his office when a protester shouted “Shame, shame’’ in Italian.

Bergeron said he told Lombardi that abuse survivors had been “waiting a lifetime to be able to stand up and speak out.’’ Bergeron accompanied four other survivors so they could speak with Lombardi and tell him their stories. They asked him to pass along their request to speak with other Vatican officials.

The event, which aims to show survivors worldwide they are not alone, was organized by Bergeron and another Boston man, Bernie McDaid, who were abused by the same priest starting in the sixth grade.

Protesters held signs with slogans including “Hands off children.’’

Late last week, march organizers said they were denied permission to hold the event on Vatican soil. It is standard Vatican practice to ban non-Vatican-sponsored events from the square.

Lombardi said he had come to greet the organizers but when he saw “it wasn’t going to be easy’’ he left.

Participants, who came from a dozen countries and said they were raped and molested by priests as children, flocked to Rome for the candlelit march.

At the culmination of the march, each victim planned to put a stone he or she had brought from home onto a pile — in the same way hikers leave piles of stones along mountain paths to show others that someone had been there before.

Wearing T-shirts that read “Enough!’’ in English, Italian, and German, organizers demanded that the United Nations recognize the systematic sexual abuse of children as a crime against humanity.

At a briefing before the march, participants stood up one by one to tell how their lives had been damaged by the abuse they suffered as children. Many recounted years of drug and alcohol addiction, eating disorders, and other psychological and emotional problems.

“For 50 years I thought I was the only person in the entire world that had been abused by a Catholic priest,’’ said Sue Cox, 63, from Warwickshire, Britain. She clarified herself: “Raped by a Catholic priest, not abused, because what he did was rape me and rape is different.

“It’s taken 50 years for me to find my voice. But now I’ve found it. I want to continue to speak on behalf of people who maybe aren’t able to speak or have not yet been able to face the fear and the guilt and shame that survivors feel.’’

Fifty-five former students of a Catholic institute for the deaf in Verona, Italy, joined the protest.

Bergeron and McDaid met with a high-ranking Vatican official in Rome in 2003, and five years later McDaid became the first victim to meet with Pope Benedict XVI during the pontiff’s trip to the United States.

Eight years after the US scandal erupted in Boston, however, McDaid and Bergeron say the Vatican hasn’t taken sufficient responsibility and hasn’t reached out to victims or put in place universal prevention programs to ensure children are protected.

They formed a nonprofit group, Survivor’s Voice, as a way to bring together victims from around the world — a campaign that kicked into gear this year after the abuse scandal exploded on a global scale with revelations of thousands of victims in Europe and beyond, of bishops who covered up for pedophile priests, and of Vatican officials who turned a blind eye to the crimes.

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