People who were raped and molested by priests are gathering in Rome this weekend to launch a petition demanding the United Nations designate systematic sexual abuse of children as a crime against humanity.
Organizers said the Sunday gathering would mark the first time that abuse survivors from around the world will gather for a day of healing and to demand greater accountability from the Vatican. A few hundred people from a dozen countries are expected.
Organizers had hoped to stage the demonstration in St. Peter's Square, but said they had to move it a few hundred meters (yards) away because the Holy See declined to give them access.
Organizer Gary Bergeron, abused as an altar boy by a Boston-area priest, said Friday the issue needs to be treated as a global one.
"If it can happen in an institution like the Catholic Church, it can happen anywhere," he told reporters at the Foreign Press Association. "If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone."
Bergeron and co-organizer Bernie McDaid, also abused by a Boston-area priest starting in the sixth grade, were two of the more prominent survivors of clerical abuse to emerge after the sex abuse scandal erupted in Boston in 2002.
In 2003 they met with the Vatican No. 2 in Rome 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 U.S. scandal erupted, however, they said the Vatican hasn't taken sufficient responsibility, hasn't reached out to victims or put in place universal prevention programs.
"We always realized this was a huge issue. We were ahead of the curve," Bergeron said. "The world wasn't ready to listen."
Now, however, they said they wanted to start an awareness campaign since the world has been sensitized to the problem following revelations this year of thousands of victims in Europe and beyond, the bishops who covered up for pedophile priests and Vatican officials who turned a blind eye for decades.
"If this were any other corporation, heads would have rolled and been fired immediately," McDaid said. "This is totally unacceptable to me and a lot of others."
The pope has admitted the church failed to take sufficient measures to stop the abuse and has apologized to victims during several foreign trips. He has insisted victims were the church's top priority, although the Holy See itself hasn't initiated any widescale outreach programs.
Some 60-80 deaf victims from Verona are expected to attend, spokesman Marco Lodi Rizzini told The Associated Press. The Verona victims have emerged as one of the more horrific examples of abuse to come to light in Italy; dozens have reported that they suffered rape and molestation by priests while students at an institute for the deaf in the 1960s and 1970s.
In addition, victims from Ireland, the Netherlands, Germany and elsewhere are expected to attend, Rizzini said.
Organizers plan to launch a petition asking the United Nations to designate "systematic" sexual abuse of children as a crime against humanity. Under Article 7 of the U.N. treaty establishing the U.N. International Criminal Court, a crime against humanity is defined as an act committed as part of a "widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population."
The statute lists murder, enslavement, torture as well as "rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution ... or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity."
"I'm not here to change the world. I'm here to make sure my son isn't abused," said Bergeron, whose father was abused by a priest when he was a child as well.