Conway Hall, 26 March 2011
Building on alliances consolidated during the demonstrations around the Pope’s visit and a later demonstration at the Vatican itself, Survivors Voice Europe was inaugurated in Conway Hall on Saturday, 26 March 2011. The two American founders of Survivors’ Voice came to tell their story and give their support. We wish the new organisation every success.
Even when those leading the organisation spoke, the trauma they had endured was painfully evident. Despite the passage of decades since the abuse ceased and many years speaking out, most still could not do so without obviously fighting back tears. All were adamant that, even now, the Church does not care and is only interested in damage limitation. And this view remained after having spoken to bishops, archbishops, cardinals and the Pope himself. Indeed the most damning comments were about the Pope’s cynical handling of the press and even more of meetings with child abuse survivors where promises were made that were never kept. The fast tracking by Benedict of his predecessors’ beatification – with the abandoning of the usual five-year minimum rule – drew particular contempt. It was seen as a desperate attempt to close down enquiry into JP II’s questionable record, and – in so doing – to Cardinal Ratzinger’s activities during his pontificate.
What was so striking about the people leading this organisation is that they are just ordinary decent people who have had enough. They are not publicity seekers; they just want to do whatever they can to try to prevent what nearly destroyed their lives destroying those of others. It was also evident how much courage it had taken declare what they have suffered. But it was also clear that abuse survivors derived immense solace from each other. That they talk of an instant bond in such circumstances is, sadly, also testimony to the extent to which their experiences dominate their lives, even in some cases half a century later. They spoke of such experiences transforming them from victims into survivors, a hugely positive psychological step.
But for those who have not shared their experiences, it must be even worse – as the suicide, crime and mental and physical breakdown statistics show all too clearly. One man who was later to become one of the American founders was so afraid, even as an adult, of his devoutly religious family’s reaction, that he “came out” by letter, telling them that in the next few days the story would break in the press. Having written the letter, he went to the airport and flew to the furthest place he could. It later turned out that his father had been abused too, and that it had sullied his life. The other co-founder feared that taking on the church would ruin his business – it pretty well did. But he is also convinced that had he not faced up to the truth, he would have died by now from drink or drugs. Both testified that the abuse had hugely undermined their ability to be able to form and sustain relationships, and their ability to trust others.
One of the European organisers spoke of his time in Opus Dei. He said it was like a 19th-century secret society. Potential members were identified around the age of 11, when their preparation started for admission as aspirants at 14. From this age, they were progressively isolated from their families, whose role was insidiously replaced by the organisation and a nominated father substitute who took down and preserved in meticulous detail the aspirant’s personal thoughts. This organiser said he was even required to transfer to an Opus Dei doctor, who, when he left the Order refused to transfer his medical records. The organiser said that, despite denials, Opus Dei members still use a cilice (metal chain with barbs worn around the upper thigh for a couple of hours at a time) and knotted string to whip themselves. The aspirants are forbidden from taking the sadistic instruments home, or for discussing with their parents what happens within Opus Dei.
Apart from the Pope’s strategic attempts, noted above, to close down investigations into his predecessors pontificate, the greatest concern was for those parts of the world where abuse that is surely happening, but is not yet in the public eye such as Africa, the Far East and South America. But that does not mean to say that there is not still a huge amount to come out in countries where abuse is already known. David Greenwood, a Yorkshire solicitor was adamant that the hundred abuse cases he is dealing with are just the tip of the iceberg, even in this country. He felt that, for many, opening up the wounds was just too painful. Nor can the attitude of the Church help; David has gone on record as saying that, still now, the Church fights every case tooth and nail. Even after a hundred cases, David admits to being shocked anew by the depths of depravity to which abusers and their protectors stoop.
What has motivated the organisers to endure still more pain in bringing their suffering to the public’s attention is a determination to break the cycle of abuse in the future: for today’s children and future generations, all over the world. And they have made a very good start.
Encouraging individuals to bring cases and demand compensation is a major priority, with the added bonus of the publicity this brings the cause. Publicity will also follow from public demonstrations. Both should encourage others to come forward, helping them to become survivors rather than victims. Keith Porteous Wood urged the organisers to designate a formal national day for catholic abuse survivors, worldwide.
As well as pursuing individual cases, David Greenwood suggests Survivors Voice’ strategy should be to maximise publicity. He also wants the Church to be challenged as an institution up to the very highest levels; and he has some promising avenues in mind. Keith is well advanced with challenges at the United Nations. He had recently returned from making his third intervention at the United Nations Human Rights Council. After his first intervention, in 2009, the Vatican representative had sought to pardon the unpardonable and spawned a media frenzy around the world – fifty articles, none of them favourable to the Church.
This time Keith presented a powerful report demonstrating that his earlier accusations of the Church having broken multiple Articles of the UN Convention of the Child had now been endorsed by Geoffrey Robertson QC. On the basis of his intervention, Keith had been invited to meet officials at the UN High Commission and this had opened up promising new lines of challenge. “This is not the end, it is the beginning” he told the enthusiastic audience.
Out of the shadows
During the event in Rome in October 2010, Italian photographer Silvia Amodio started her “Out of the shadows” project.
The project consists of a series of photographs of survivors and their testimonies.
Initially it was started for a publication in the Italian issue of Marie-Claire, which came out in February this year, but working on this subject made Silvia decide to hand over the material to Survivors Voice Europe to be on display at their events all over the world.
At the Rome event more than 30 survivors were photographed and a selection of these pictures and testimonies have been mounted into a multimedia video. Silvia continues to follow Survivors Voice Europe at their events and new pictures will be added.