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The Vatican 'owes God an apology,' Newfoundland activist says in letter to Pope Francis

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — The prominent founder of a Newfoundland organization for clergy abuse survivors has written a letter to Pope Francis, saying the Vatican "owes God an apology" for mismanagement of abuse allegations.

"I realize you inherited this problem, but the way the Vatican mismanaged this crisis is disgraceful," wrote Gemma Hickey, founder of Pathways Foundation in St. John's.

Newfoundland and Labrador was the site of two highly publicized abuse scandals in the late 1980s, when allegations of widespread abuse at Mount Cashel and Belvedere Catholic orphanages met with public shock and outrage.

Stories of similar horrors soon began to surface around the world.

"I have forgiven the priest who abused me, as the issue of clerical abuse is larger than him and me. Your Holiness, just as I made a choice to respond differently to my experience surely you have the capacity to respond differently to this global crisis."

Pathways founder Gemma Hickey

But Hickey, a clergy abuse survivor, noted that the province has not had a "pastoral visit" since 1984, before Mount Cashel became an infamous household name.

Hickey felt compelled to write the letter after an August report documented the sexual abuse of more than 1,000 children in six Pennsylvania dioceses over a 70-year period — and after hearing the recent allegation that Pope Francis had prior knowledge of misconduct by a U.S. bishop.

Francis issued a 2,000-word statement addressing the Pennsylvania report, writing that the church "abandoned" the children affected and asking for forgiveness.

But, said Hickey: "In order to move forward, I believe the Vatican must take full responsibility before a plea for forgiveness can be considered."

Hickey said the Vatican's response ignored extensive damage to communities and expressed disappointment that Francis' widely circulated letter did not address the Pennsylvania cases.

"I view this as the abject failure of the Vatican to acknowledge that actual people in actual communities with specific histories were shattered and brutally harmed at the hands of predacious priests and the bishops who protected them," Hickey wrote.

The letter also detailed Hickey's journey to a "ministry in the shape of activism," including founding Pathways to connect with other survivors, and walking across Newfoundland in 2015 for clerical abuse victims.

Hickey wrote that damage from the abuse is ongoing, but grappling with the past has created the opportunity to advocate for change.

"I have forgiven the priest who abused me, as the issue of clerical abuse is larger than him and me," Hickey wrote.

"Your Holiness, just as I made a choice to respond differently to my experience surely you have the capacity to respond differently to this global crisis."

Hickey's letter invited the Pope to talk either by phone or in person.

Since mailing the letter on Sept. 12, Hickey has not received a response, but did have a chance encounter with St. John's Archbishop Martin Currie on a recent flight to Halifax.

In a Facebook post including a photo of Currie and Hickey at the airport, Hickey wrote: "He thinks the Pope should could come to Newfoundland, too. It's going to be an interesting flight."

In August, the Archbishop of Halifax said the Roman Catholic church was in crisis and there was an urgent need for change. Archbishop Anthony Mancini condemned the new reports of sexual abuse by priests, saying in a statement he is "devastated" and "ashamed" by the scandal.

Mancini said he has wondered why abuse was covered up and the church's image prioritized over the victims, and decried what he called "the systemic failure of leadership."

"Our Catholic credibility and identity needs to be rebuilt; our authority must become service and not power; the gospel must be recovered from all that has tarnished it," Mancini said. 

Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press

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