If you think clergy sex abuse is an evil of the past, meet 22-year-old Alessandro Battaglia of Milan. While it’s common for survivors to bury the memories of what they endured in an effort to protect themselves from further trauma, he has never forgotten what happened to him seven years ago.
Alessandro is one of the many inspiring individuals Dan Sherwood and I met when we traveled to Vatican City in February. While church leaders from all over the world had gathered for the Pope’s much-anticipated summit to address clerical sex abuse, survivors like Dan and Alessandro were also there, to demand transparency and accountability from the Catholic Church.
After months of secret meetings and private conversations, Dan had asked me to tell his story by sharing his truth in the local newspaper. Just as he was arriving in Rome, it was circulating all over the internet back home. For him, the trip signified a new chapter in life – one in which he could finally live honestly.
I was greeted on my first morning in Rome by a flawless blue sky and the unfamiliar warmth of a February sun. As Dan and I strolled through St. Peter’s Square, I couldn’t remember the last time I felt so stress-free and peaceful. I was overcome with gratitude that the proverbial stars had aligned, bringing me to a place I longed to experience my entire life, and for such a reason.
As we ambled along the cobblestone street, Dan thought he spotted a familiar face from social media amid the throngs of tourists. His suspicions were confirmed when we got closer, and we introduced ourselves to George Mead, a member of Ending Clergy Abuse (ECA), a worldwide organization based in Seattle comprising survivors and human rights activists with the mission “to compel the Roman Catholic Church to end clergy abuse, protect children, and seek justice for victims.”
During the week of the papal summit, ECA spearheaded an organized effort with other groups working on the front lines every day in the fight to protect children, including Bishop Accountability and SNAP (Survivors Network of Those Abused By Priests). The collaboration resulted in the largest worldwide gathering to date of clergy abuse survivors and activists, representing more than 21 countries and five continents.
George invited us to a nearby hotel, where ECA had set up temporary headquarters for the week, and there we met survivors, activists, journalists, and filmmakers, all dedicated to the same cause. That afternoon, Dan and I took the elevator to a conference room overlooking a sunny rooftop deck on the hotel’s top floor, where ECA staged an international press conference for survivors to share their truth.
There was no Italian translator present, so although Alessandro’s words were lost on me, his pain was not. I watched him gesticulating emphatically, tears welling up in his eyes, as my own vision blurred.
Later I headed to the lounge to charge my phone. It was loud and lively at first, full of strangers who were quickly becoming familiar to me for the pivotal roles they play in this global battle. The room emptied and silence entered, so I began documenting the day in my journal. On the couch next to me, a young boy was lying on his back, scrolling absently through his phone. Initially, he wore what appeared to be the cloak of a sullen teenager, but then I realized it was the despondency of a broken man.
Alessandro and I sat in silence until, unsuccessfully grasping for Italian, I said in the only language I know, “I’m so sorry for what happened to you.”
He sat up and folded his hands. “My English is not so good,” he said, smiling weakly, his eyes hooded by the trauma he first experienced seven years ago. As he stared at the floor, he grasped for the words to tell his story.
Alessandro still blames himself for being raped at 15 by his trusted parish priest. “I should have known when I opened the door and saw one bed. I should have done something, but I froze,” he said.
He has attempted suicide four times in the past seven years. One morning, he woke up in the hospital after driving his car into a guard rail.
Today Alessandro is a successful graphic designer, and although he is buoyed by his work as an activist, he continues to be weighed down by misplaced guilt.
“Some days are very hard and I cannot speak about it. It’s too much to bear. But then there are days when I know I am helping people, and I am still here for a reason,” he said.
The room filled once again, and I stood up and extended my arms. We shared a hug and more tears as I thanked him for his courage.
I saw my new friend the next morning, as we both took part in the March to Zero, a protest staged by ECA to demand zero tolerance from the Vatican of abuse and cover-ups. The sun shone down for the event, which began at the Piazza del Popolo, the People’s Plaza, and ended outside Castel Sant’Angelo. Wielding my protest sign and juggling my phone instead of my cumbersome camera, I held my own with the aggressive international press, walking backwards through the cobblestone streets of Rome. Dressed in a sweatshirt emblazoned with the word SURVIVOR, Alessandro locked eyes with me. In them, I saw both rage and grief, but most of all, perseverance.
Back at the hotel, invigorated by the experience and the crisp spring air, we once again embraced. But this time, Alessandro was beaming. He was empowered, and he was reminded he is indeed here for a reason.
For more information, visit ECA (Ending Clergy Abuse).