MANHATTAN (CN) - A support group for victims of clergy sexual abuse gathered in front of St. Patrick's Cathedral on Tuesday afternoon to announce the filing of tens of thousands of papers urging prosecutors at the International Criminal Court at The Hague to investigate the Vatican for crimes against humanity.
Five representatives stood near the entrance of the cathedral in Midtown Manhattan before a group of reporters as tourists and worshipers wandered in and out of the building.
"We are here for one very simple reason: to protect children," said David Clohessy, the executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). "We chose the name of our group deliberately. We're a survivors' network. Unfortunately, many who endure the kind of victimization that we suffered don't survive."
Earlier that day, attorneys from the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) filed
papers at The Hague, accusing high-ranking Vatican officials such as Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone and Cardinal William Levada of enabling and concealing child sex crimes throughout the world.
"Crimes against tens of thousands of victims, most of them children, are being covered up by officials at the highest level of the Vatican. In this case, all roads really do lead to Rome," CCR Senior Staff Attorney Pam Spees said in a statement announcing the filing.
One 71-page brief states that, when he was known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the present-day pope informed Catholic bishops that all cases of clerical sexual abuse would be centralized as of May 18, 2001.
SNAP lawyers gave prosecutors more than 20,000 pages of supplemental materials, including reports, policy papers and government and judicial inquiries, Clohessy said.
"We believe the prosecutor has enough information to act," CCR executive director Vincent Warren said.
In a letter to The Hague's prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo, staff attorneys for CCR described "sexual abuse" as a euphemism for the widespread rape and sexual violence by priests.
"Descriptions such as 'sexual abuse' tend to minimize the serious of the conduct at issue as though it is something other than torture, rape or serious sexual violence when committed by priests or others associated with the church," the letter states.
It urges prosecutors to apply the word "torture," using the definition of the ad hoc
tribunals in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.
"Sexual violence necessarily gives rise to severe pain or suffering, whether physical or medical, and in this way justifies its characterization as an act of torture," one document from the Yugoslavia tribunal states, according to the CCR attorneys.
Court papers cite horrific abuse allegations
in Philadelphia involving sadomasochism, group abuse and a victim being beaten to the point of unconsciousness.
Of the five speakers, four identified themselves as survivors, and they say they represent thousands of others.
Citing Vatican statistics, attorneys say that church authorities admit that nearly 6,000 Catholic priests have been accused publicly of molesting children over the past few decades in the U.S., victimizing an estimated 100,000 Americans.
The plaintiffs allege that 20,000 sexually abusive priests kept their jobs after being accused of a crime, with church leaders "shuffling" them to remote and isolated areas.
At least two of the speakers at the press conference said their priests were relocated after rape and molestation allegations against them surfaced.
Tim Walsh, in his late 40s, told Courthouse News that he was in fifth grade when he was abused by a priest who left a "wake of victims" before being moved at least three times.
Walsh said he confronted Bishop William Murphy on Long Island, but the bishop turned away and sent out security guards.
"Is that a Gospel-driven response?" Murphy asked.
Another SNAP member, Mary Handler, 54, said she was 5 years old when she was molested.
Like Walsh, Handler said that church officials stonewalled her questions and shuffled her priest, who she says died before she could seek justice.
The attorneys want prosecutors to open an investigation pursuant to the Rome Statute, which calls for The Hague to step in where states are unable or unwilling to prosecute crimes.
The organizations say that the abuse qualifies as a "widespread or systemic attack against a civilian population," required to show that The Hague can have jurisdiction over the case.
If The Hague agrees with that argument, it could be the first time that an international court assumes jurisdiction over a case against the Vatican for sexual abuse, CCR attorneys say.
After New York, SNAP and CCR will travel to 12 cities throughout Europe to demand local dioceses turn over relevant documents and encourage other victims of sexual abuse by clergy to come forward and provide additional evidence to add to the brief.
In addition to The Hague, they will visit Amsterdam, Brussels, Berlin, Paris, Vienna, London, Dublin, Warsaw and Madrid. The tour finishes in Rome, where they intend to bring the case to the Vatican's door.