VATICAN CITY (AP) — Survivors of church sex abuse have descended on Rome this week, marking the first anniversary of Pope Francis’ summit of church leaders on preventing abuse with calls for more accountability and acknowledgment of their pain.
On Thursday, three deaf Argentines marched to St. Peter’s Square. They were among the victims of violent sexual abuse by priests in the Argentine branch of the Provolo Institute, a Catholic-run school for the deaf that also saw dozens of victims at its school in Verona, Italy.
Recently, an Argentine court convicted two Provolo priests of repeatedly violating the children — including one who also was flagged to Francis as early as in 2014 as an abuser in Verona. “Support the Provolo survivors,” read a banner carried by the victims in front of St. Peter’s Square.
Also marching was Mary Dispenza, a survivor of abuse by both a priest and a nun. She and members of the U.S.-based victims’ advocacy group SNAP walked to the headquarters of the umbrella group of religious sisters and secured a meeting with its executive secretary, Sister Patricia Murray.
Their aim was to request that the organization, UISG, speak out more about the unacknowledged problem of nuns who sexually abuse children and other nuns. Much of the abuse crisis has focused on priests raping and molesting children. Little has been said or done about the problem of abuses committed by nuns.
“Did we accomplish anything? I’m not sure. Sister Patricia was genuine in her concern,” Dispenza told The Associated Press in an email.
This week’s activism has been sparked by the one-year anniversary of Francis’ Feb. 21-24, 2019 summit, during which he convened the heads of national bishops’ conferences from around the world for a four-day tutorial on preventing sexual abuse.
He called the summit after he himself misjudged the scope of the scandal, especially in Chile, and after the scandal re-ignited in the U.S. following revelations of decades of systemic cover-up in Pennsylvania and the case of ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Francis defrocked the U.S. church leader for abusing adults and children.
In the year since the summit, Francis has passed two major legal reforms: He has removed the so-called pontifical secret from sex abuse cases, meaning bishops and religious superiors now can cooperate more freely with law enforcement during criminal investigations of abusers. And he passed a law requiring all abuse be reported to the church — but not police — including abuse committed by nuns.
At a press conference this week, experts from BishopAccountability, an online database of the abuse crisis, praised the legal developments and the awareness that the global summit brought to church leaders who have long refused to believe victims. But they said more needed to be done.
“The Vatican and the pope’s main failure is in not implementing a strong, universal, zero tolerance law,” said the group’s co-founder, Anne Barrett Doyle. “If you are found guilty once of sexually abusing a child, you are permanently removed from public ministry and you are closely monitored by the church.”
Francis has stopped using the term “zero tolerance,” given most church leaders outside the U.S. reject a “one strike and you’re out” policy for predator priests.