A small but symbolic protest staged by two victims of sex abuse at the hands of American priests was stymied today when police escorted one of them off St. Peter’s Square as she was preparing to distribute leaflets.
Several uniformed officers walked Barbara Blaine, founder of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, behind barricades set up at the entrance to the square.
Blaine and another leader of the group took their campaign for reform to the centre of Roman Catholicism, demanding that Vatican officials bar Cardinal Bernard Law from celebrating an important Mass mourning Pope John Paul.
They arrived in Rome just hours before today’s service at St Peter’s Basilica to condemn what they called the Vatican’s “hurtful decision” to choose Law for the honour.
Law resigned as archbishop of Boston in December 2002, after unsealed court records revealed he had moved predatory priests among parishes without alerting parents that their children were at risk. More than 550 people have filed abuse claims in Boston in recent years and the archdiocese has paid more than €60m in settlements.
Blaine said earlier the group was not opposed to Law’s participation in next week’s conclave to elect a new pope, but that his public role in the papal transition was hurtful.
“We are the sons and daughters of the Catholic family who were raped, sodomised and sexually molested by priests,” she said, holding a photograph of herself as a child around the time she said a priest began molesting her.
“At this time, we should be able to focus on the Holy Father’s death, instead of Cardinal Law’s prominence,” she said.
Blaine had planned to distribute leaflets in English and Italian around St Peter’s Square when police intervened.
Cardinal Law has in the past apologised for his failures.
The Survivors Network, which says it has more than 5,600 members, has spent more than a decade pressing US bishops to acknowledge the scope of molestation in the church. Along with running support groups for victims, it has picketed parishes, alerted the public to accused priests living in their communities and pressed authorities to prosecute bishops who failed to report abuse.
Asked if the protest was wrong at a time when the church is grieving, Blaine said bluntly: “The Vatican’s decision to have Law celebrate the Mass was inappropriate.”
Some Catholics say the group is too strident and has close ties with lawyers making millions of dollars from suing the church.
But the Survivors Network says the overwhelming majority of its members have never sued and are too traumatised to do so. They say they adopted their tactics after bishops promised for years to take action against guilty clergy, then never did.
American cardinals generally have declined to comment on Law’s celebrating one of the nine daily Masses for John Paul, a period of mourning called Novemdiales. But some have said the Vatican likely chose him because he leads an important church, not to give him a personal honour. St Mary Major is one of four basilicas under direct Vatican jurisdiction.
Still, the assignment gives Law a position of influence. In their homilies, cardinals can highlight what they consider key concerns for the church. Observers scour the speeches for clues to how a cardinal will vote.
Some Boston Catholics said Law’s role in mourning the pope was another sign that church officials did not understand the betrayal parishioners felt over his wrongdoing.
“Living in the church in Boston, there’s a lot of hurt, a lot of hurt,” said Scott Steinkerchner, a pilgrim from Boston. “Having him preside sends a message that Rome doesn’t understand how much hurt there is and how much hurt was left there when he left.”
The abuse crisis erupted in January 2002 with the case of one accused priest in Boston, then spread nationwide, compelling American bishops to enact sweeping reforms of their discipline policy for guilty priests.
According to studies the bishops commissioned to restore trust in their leadership, more than 11,000 abuse claims have been made against US clergy since 1950.