A Current Affair: Italian Survivor Fights to End Rampant Clergy Sex Abuse

Alessandro Battaglia, middle, of ECA,
takes part in the March to Zero in Rome on February 23, with Carol Midboe, left, Austin, Texas chapter of SNAP and ECA founding member Denise Buchanan of Jamaica.
Sarah E. Murphy/Falmouth Style

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).

Taking Back the Church: Clergy Sex Abuse Survivor Aims to Prevent Abuse on Cape Cod

Clergy sex abuse survivor Dan Sherwood isn’t waiting for the Catholic Church to change. Instead he’s joining the fight to prevent future victims.

Dan and I met for several months beginning last fall before he eventually asked me to share his story in February. His motivation was twofold – a desire to pursue an authentic, shame-free life at age 51, and to help others who have endured similar suffering. His began shortly after he moved to Falmouth at age nine and became an altar boy at St. Anthony’s Church in East Falmouth on Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

After going public about the decade of sexual and emotional abuse inflicted upon him by Monsignor Maurice Souza, Dan continued his journey of truth by traveling to Vatican City. There church leaders from around the world had gathered for the Pope’s much-anticipated summit on clerical sex abuse. Although the abuse crisis was the top agenda item at the November 2018 meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, at the Vatican’s request, no action was taken, with the promise the issue would be discussed on a global level in Vatican City.

In a letter from Massachusetts bishops to parishioners dated February 15, a week prior to the papal summit in Rome, the gathering was described as a way “to seek to create a strong consensus throughout the universal Church of zero tolerance for sexual abuse.” It goes on to state that in 2018, the primary attention of responsibility for the abuse crisis shifted from priests to bishops, to include accountability for bishops and cardinals. U.S. Bishops subsequently announced the need for establishing a method to report both cardinals and bishops implicated in the cover-up of sexual abuse, in addition to a review committee to include “appropriately-credentialed lay leadership.” The letter was signed by Sean O’Malley, Archbishop of Boston; Mitchell Rozanzki, Bishop of Springfield; Robert McManus, Bishop of Worcester; and Edgar da Cunha, Bishop of Fall River. O’Malley also serves as president of the pope’s Commission for the Protection of Children.

Pope Francis concluded the four-day meeting of the minds on February 24 with hyperbole rather than action. Although he declared an “all-out battle” against the abuse of minors, calling it an “abominable crime” he promised to “erase from the face of the earth,” he failed to offer concrete measures for doing so.

For survivors like Dan, the lack of action, and what he believes to be the height of hypocrisy, only add insult to injury. “The Pope is the one person with the authority to enforce zero tolerance into Church law. He had an unbelievable opportunity to do that, but I think he screwed up and he’s hiding behind the bishops,” Dan said. “The Catholic Church is so quick to preach against abortion, but at the same time, many of these church leaders have either been abusing kids themselves, or shuffling predator priests from one parish to another while turning a blind eye as more children are victimized.”

Each day, the headlines continue to validate his point. Just this week, the Pope refused the resignation of French cardinal Phillipe Barbarin of Lyon, who was found guilty on March 7 of failing to report allegations of abuse of boy scouts committed by a priest dating back to the 1970s. Barbarin, who is appealing his six-month suspended sentence, said the pope, invoking the presumption of innocence, instead told him to do whatever he felt necessary for the good of the archdiocese.

Dan believes it’s time for parishioners to take back their church by demanding transparency from their diocese, and he is hopeful Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey will join states across the country currently launching investigations into abuse and cover-ups.

“If you’re concerned, the best thing to do is talk to your parish priest. Ask him what he knows. Tell him you want answers from the Diocese. Demand a complete list of names of accused priests. Not just some of them, all of them,” he said.

Falmouth Style reached out to Monsignor Stephen Avila of St. Anthony’s Church for comment. In a return call, Avila stated in a voicemail that “stringent” safety protocols have been in place since the mid-1990s, and thorough investigations are conducted in response to “credible” accusations of abuse, citing the website of the Diocese of Fall River (which comprises Cape Cod & Islands) for further information. A follow-up call to Msgr. Avila was not returned. Calls to Father Tim McGoldrick at St. Patrick’s Church in Falmouth, and Father Arnold Medeiros of St. Elizabeth Seton Church in North Falmouth and St. Joseph Church in Woods Hole were also not returned.

“To me, that doesn’t show much ‘pastoral care’ from a monsignor in the local parish. That kind of attitude would make survivors, or people who want to report abuse, feel very disenfranchised,” Dan said. “They probably would go elsewhere, or maybe never come forward, allowing the abuse to continue. That response seems pretty out of touch with the issue.” 

For information about the abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, and to report abuse, visit Bishopaccountability.org.

Taking the Message to Rome: Clergy Sex Abuse Survivors Demand Transparency

Clergy sex abuse survivor Dan Sherwood recently shared his story with his hometown of Falmouth. Now he has shared it with the world. He and Sarah brought his message to the papal summit in Vatican City in February, where they met clergy sex abuse survivors and supporters from all over the globe. Read all about it here…