ROME – People who were sexually abused by priests gathered in Rome on Saturday to denounce the Vatican's latest effort to show it is cracking down on clerical abuse and demand greater accountability from the Catholic Church.
About 50 victims, most of them Italian, gathered for a daylong symposium on the psychological and legal issues surrounding abuse. The group, which included several former students of a notorious school for the deaf in Verona where dozens of people reported abuse, ended the day with a march on Italy's parliament.
One of the organizers, Salvatore Domolo, a 46-year-old ex-priest who says he was abused from age eight to 11 by his parish priest in Novarra, said victims were incensed by the Vatican's letter this week to bishops around the world asking they write guidelines to combat abuse.
In its letter, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith emphasized the primary role of bishops and religious superiors in handling abuse cases at a time when bishops' credibility to enforce child protection policies has again been questioned. Recent reports by lay review boards in the U.S. and Ireland have exposed some bishops' continued stonewalling and unwillingness to report abusers.
And just Saturday, the church and Salesian order in the Netherlands said they were investigating revelations that a Salesian priest served on the board of a group that promotes pedophilia and campaigns to end the Dutch ban on adult-child sex, with the full knowledge of his boss.
The Vatican intended the set of general, nonbinding suggestions as a guide to help bishops' conferences enact their own anti-abuse policies. Recommendations included listening to victims and offering them spiritual and psychological assistance and making sure priests are educated and trained to live a celibate life.
Victims advocates have dismissed the initiative as toothless since it foresees no enforcement mechanism to ensure bishops actually follow the guidelines they craft, and because it diminishes the role of lay review boards which to date have been the only check on bishops' compliance.
The letter also told bishops it was "important" to cooperate with police in reporting abuse but didn't make such reporting mandatory, saying only bishops should report abusers in places where civil law requires it. The Vatican has said mandatory reporting could place clerics in jeopardy in countries with repressive regimes.
Ton Leerschool, of Someren, the Netherlands, said such a vague exhortation to comply with the law was too little too late. "They came out with this big story, a press conference, translations of the letter in all these languages, saying we're going to comply with civil laws. But what about the last 35 years?" asked Leerschool, who said he was abused by a priest at his boarding school starting at age 13.
Domolo, the former priest, said the Vatican was merely trying to improve its image with the letter. "The document is full of empty words," he said.