ROME (Reuters) - Victims of child sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests demonstrated near the Vatican on Sunday night, holding up placards demanding that the church punish those responsible for cover ups and do more to protect children.
Some 75 victims and their supporters from the United States and several European countries had wanted to march to the Vatican with candles but were blocked by police because they did not have a permit.
“This is about responsibility,” Gary Bergeron, one of the organisers of a group called Survivors Voice told the rally at Castel Sant’ Angelo in the heart of Rome within sight of Saint Peter’s Basilica some 500 metres away.
After negotiations with police, Bergeron and a woman were allowed to walk to the Vatican holding candles and enter St Peter’s Square while the others were forced to stay behind.
The two left some 75 letters addressed to Pope Benedict from abuse victims on a Vatican entrance. Police, who followed closely, made copies of their passports and released them.
“There is no person in any position, in any part of the world whose status or position should be above the protection of our children or above the law,” Bergeron told the rally.
Bergeron also left about a dozen small stones in the square representing abuse victims from various countries.
“When men of the cloth take the bodies of children for their pleasure, it is time for change,” Bergeron told the gathering.
Revelations about children who were sexually abused by priests over the past decades have rocked the church this year, particularly in Europe, the United States and Australia.
The demonstrators included a group of men who were abused by priests at a special school for the deaf in the northern Italian city of Verona in the 1960s.
They spoke in sign language through an interpreter and held placards with messages such as “Shame,” “We want a church without abuse” and “Paedophile priests, hands off children.”
“Today, I say to every priest, to every politician, to every leader in every country in the world...the excuse of ‘I did not know’, the excuse of ‘You never told me’ or ‘I never knew’ can no longer be used as a defence,” Bergeron said.
The Vatican’s chief spokesman Father Federico Lombardi came out to talk to the protestors but was forced to put off the meeting after he was whistled at by some in the crowd and when media gathered. Lombardi later met leaders privately.
Dubbed “Reformation Day,” the protest was timed to coincide with the anniversary of the day in 1517 when Martin Luther sparked the revolt against Papal authority that came to be known as the Reformation.
The two founders of Survivors Voice, Bergeron, 47 and Bernie McDaid, 54, were abused by the same priest as children in different cities in the Boston area some seven years apart in the 1960s.
“These men of the cloth continue to stonewall. This is not the church that I was taught to believe in,” McDaid said.
Both were altar boys and both said they were molested by a priest who was first denounced as an abuser in 1962 but was shifted from parish to parish instead of being defrocked.
They met as adults in 2002 when the Church sex abuse scandal first swept the United States, with its focus in Boston.
This year, a new chapter in the scandal came to light as victims in other countries, including Ireland, Austria, Italy and the pope’s native Germany, came forward. Bishops in several European countries have resigned either because they were unmasked as abusers or had mishandled abuse cases.
Benedict has several times apologised for abuse and the Vatican says tougher measures have been put in place to screen out seminarians who could become abusers. Victim groups want the Vatican to publish a list of all known abusers.
“What we once had as children, we can never get back,” Bergeron said. “We stand here today to serve as reminders to the world that what was once taken away from us must never be taken away from another child. We are here to say: ‘Enough.’”
Editing by Ralph Boulton