Nfld. & Labrador

'Very raw,' mixed feelings for survivor Gemma Hickey after clergy abuse summit

The St. John's advocate was outside the gates of the Vatican for a four-day summit called by Pope Francis.

St. John's advocate was outside gates of the Vatican for 4-day summit called by Pope Francis

Gemma Hickey remains hopeful and with an open mind and heart, but says there are a lot of things the church still needs to do to stop clergy abuse. (Paula Gale/CBC)

Being outside the gates of the Vatican in Italy was a difficult journey for Gemma Hickey, but one that was worth it to meet with so many fellow survivors of clergy sexual abuse.

"I'm still processing it," Hickey said.

"It was just so incredible, but at the same time, really difficult because I was meeting victims from all over the world who were talking about the horrific, horrific abuse that they endured. So it was very intense, very raw."

It's a hard road ahead, but at least now I have more friends to walk with.- Gemma Hickey- Gemma Hickey

Hickey, an advocate and survivor of abuse by a Roman Catholic priest, lives in St. John's and travelled to Rome to join fellow survivors outside the gates of the Vatican, while Pope Francis convened with 100 bishops on preventing sexual abuse by clergy members.

"I really wanted to make sure that Newfoundland and Labrador had a seat at that table to be a part of that organizing. Everybody knew of Mount Cashel and of my advocacy, which was really wonderful, and I just felt totally embraced there by the others," Hickey told CBC's St. John's Morning Show.

"I felt like they were my church."

While Hickey was in Rome, Cardinal George Pell, one of Pope Francis's former top advisors, was found guilty of sexual offences against young boys in Australia.

"It's really difficult to accept that nobody knew anything about it and no matter where this happened in the entire world, the response by the church has been the same," Hickey said of sex abuse cases like Pell's.

Sex abuse survivors and members of Ending Clergy Abuse hold a wooden cross as they march in downtown Rome on Saturday. (Alessandra Tarantino/Associated Press)

"It's not going to end because the church hasn't dealt with it adequately or appropriately and they've been covering things up over the years, and so you're seeing this all surfacing now because the world is watching and people are speaking out and they're not going to accept this anymore."

The feeling of being among so many fellow survivors gives Hickey hope that things can change, saying this kind of summit was a "step in the right direction."

"There were hundreds and hundreds of us. I've never seen anything like it. Survivors are mobilizing," Hickey said.

"I knew that this was a global crisis, but seeing and hearing people from all over the world, face to face like that and being a part of their journey, just verified that for me even more."

'I try to keep an open mind'

But Hickey said there are "many different things" the church can do to improve how it deals with abuse by its clergy.

"I think applying the law would be a right step forward, possibly releasing names. I mean, they're protecting priests who have offended vulnerable people.… It's just the abuse of power," Hickey said.

Pope Francis hosted a four-day summit on preventing clergy sexual abuse, a high-stakes meeting designed to impress on Catholic bishops around the world that the problem is global and that there are consequences if they cover it up. (Vincenzo Pinto/Pool Photo Via AP)

"I think an apology is one thing, but we need to see some action and some protocols from this summit that, moving forward, bishops can actually apply on the local level."

Hickey remains optimistic there will be further action taken, despite what they said is a rather lacklustre result at the summit.

"I try to keep an open mind and an open heart. It's very difficult," Hickey said.

"I do in many ways feel that my wounds have been opened up again, but that's OK, I was prepared for that. It's a hard road ahead, but at least now I have more friends to walk with."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from The St. John's Morning Show