VERONA, Italy – VERONA, Italy (AP) — Italian victims of pedophilic clergy want such sexual abuse declared a crime against humanity, and they launched an international appeal on Saturday during the first public gathering of such victims in Italy.
Organizer Salvatore Domolo, a former victim and an ex-priest, said the group is looking abroad for solidarity because justice for pedophile victims is hard to come by in Italy with a statue of limitations of 10 years.
"Here there is no hope. By the time a victim arrives at the awareness of having been a victim, legal intervention is not possible," Domolo said in a country that has long been reluctant to confront the Vatican in its own backyard.
"The complicity of the hierarchy, together with the enormity of the numbers and vast geography of these crimes, should lead us to consider that we are facing a crime against humanity carried out by a political-religious organization," Domolo told a news conference before the victims met, his delivery bearing the cadence of a homily.
"With this gathering, we want to ask civilian justice to do its duty in full freedom and truth, without being intimidated by the clerical culture."
In all, several dozen victims and family members came to the Verona gathering, which organizers hope will help isolated victims to know they are not alone and persuade an Italian public reluctant to believe priests and nuns could have committed such crimes.
The meeting was held opposite Verona's heavily visited Roman colosseum and advertised with placards outside. Passers-by were free to enter, but few did.
Another will be held in Rome at the end of October, but Verona was chosen for the first gathering because it is the home of a school for the deaf where 67 former students have alleged suffering sexual abuse, pedophilia and corporal punishment from the 1950s to early 1980s.
About 40 former victims inquired by e-mail — but many are still reluctant to come forward, organizers said.
"We still don't know who their faces are. We know them only by e-mail," Domolo said.
The Vatican has been reeling for months as thousands of victims around the globe have spoken out about priests who molested children, bishops who covered up for them and Vatican officials who turned a blind eye to the problem for decades. In the latest admission, hundreds of victims came forward in Belgium with tales of horrific abuse linked to at least 13 suicides.
While Italian bishops have acknowledged 100 sexual abuse cases that warranted church intervention in the last decade, victims believe the true number in Italy is much higher because the reluctance to speak out in Italy is especially strong.
"This gathering is fundamental because we live in a social situation in which the presence of the Catholic church reduces the possibility of talking about the situation," Domolo said. "They do it all over the world, but in Italy even more. That we are just now having the first gathering of victims indicates that only in the recent months is something exploding in Italy."
Domolo, now 45, said he had been a victim of his parish priest from age 8 to 12, and that he was forced to confess "as if I had sinned."
"The church has known for 50 years this has been going on" but "kept it quiet in a disgusting way," he said.
Domolo was a priest for 15 years. He renounced both the priesthood and his Roman Catholic faith after meeting another victim on a trip to Ireland in 2001.
A man named Francesco from Padova, who did not give his surname, told the group he had been abused both by priests and nuns who used punishment as an excuse to touch him inappropriately.
"The worst was my family. They refused to believe it was true," he told the group, adding he has only been able to come to grips with it through therapy.
A 58-year-old deaf woman, who only gave the nickname given to her by the nuns of Verona's Antonio Provolo Institute for the Deaf, carefully annunciated her words as she told her story. During her 15 years at the institute, she was only alone with priests once a week for confession.
Recalling her first confession, she said she asked the nuns what to say, and they asked her what she had done. "I told them I scratched myself everywhere because I had too much wool clothing. The nuns said, 'Tell them you touched yourself.'"
At that, she said, the priest asked her to lift her clothing to show him where. And so it continued, she said, "little by little, week after week."
"We girls didn't do anything, and we had to confess. The priests, who sinned, did they ever confess, I ask?"