Monthly Archives: May 2011

UK: Homophobic Selection Process shows Bishops should be removed from Parliament

The Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association (GALHA) has condemned the recommendation by the Church of England’s legal advisors (as revealed by The Guardian Newspaper) that it is not open to those appointing a bishop or a suffragan Bishop  to propose someone who is in a sexually active same sex relationship.

GALHA Chair Adam Knowles commented:

“Humanists accept that religious organisations should be broadly entitled to choose leaders who adhere to their rules, even where we believe those rules to be bizarre, anachronistic or immoral – and the Church of England’s attempt to ban gay Bishops is all three. It seeks to deny gay people in that position the right to a loving relationship fully lived out.

What is totally unacceptable is that an organisation that flagrantly practices discrimination of this kind should enjoy a special privileged place in the national Legislature. It is in any case indefensible that the British Parliament should be the only one in the world – apart from that of Iran – which reserves places in the National Legislature for religious figures. It is adding insult to injury that these are appointed in a way specifically designed to exclude gay men, as well as – currently – all women.

“This issue has a practical  impact on the laws under which we all live. In the past Anglican Bishops have frequently figured amongst those voting to try to block equality for LGBT people.

We call upon the British Government and Parliament to work to remove  Bishops from the proposed reformed upper house. Religious figures are perfectly entitled to seek membership  of the British upper house, but they should go through the same process as everyone else, whether this involves election or appointment. That process must be seen to be transparent and non-discriminatory.

“In the long term the Church of England should be disestablished – a vital step in making Britain a secular society in which people of all beliefs enjoy equal rights and protection under the law.”

GALHA | 31st May 2011

UK: Lib Dems warning to government on big society faith groups

Protect secularism and prevent proselytising, urge grassroots Lib Dems following involvement of faith groups in public services

A child reads a leaflet on contraception during sex education lessons. Photograph: Don Mcphee for the Guardian

Grassroots Liberal Democrats are to press for government guarantees that greater involvement from faith-based groups in the provision of public services under the “Big Society” will be subject to strict safeguards to protect secularism and prevent proselytising.

The move comes against the backdrop of recent tie-ups between local government and faith groups. seeking to play a role in provision of services in potentially sensitive areas, such as advising on sexual health.

In east London, a new website aiming to promote sex education for young people “using a faith sensitive approach” has been launched after receiving funding from health authorities. It follows a recent controversy in south-west London over Richmond council’s awarding of a £89,000 contract to the Catholic Children’s Society, which will be involved in advising pupils on issues including contraception and teenage pregnancy.

Evan Harris, the former Liberal Democrat MP and an increasingly influential voice on behalf of the party’s grassroots, is among those involved in pushing to for strict guidelines to govern involvement of faith groups in public services. He said: “The party has made clear that it does not want the government to sanction ‘proselytising on the public purse’ when local councils or health bodies award a contract to a faith-based group.” The Faith, Relationships and Young People (FRYP) website was set up by Alternatives, a charity in Newham which also provides crisis pregnancy counselling and is linked with a national network of independent centres through the Christian organisation, CareConfidential.

A spokesperson for the East London NHS Foundation Trust, which provides services to the City of London and the London Boroughs of Hackney, Tower Hamlets and Newham, said there was a “high level of joint working and partnership work between statutory sexual health services and the charity.”

Despite being the focus of suspicion by pro-choice groups and others, Julia Acott, CareConfidential’s Counselling Services Manager, insisted they were a fully pro-choice organisation.

She added: “The [FRYP ]website aims to provide young people from faith backgrounds with good quality information about sex and relationships that they may not get in their home or community situations in a way that is sensitive to their backgrounds, and came under the funding scheme’s aim of reducing the incidence of sexually transmitted infections in young people.”

The website sets out the views of a range of faiths on issues including homosexuality, abortion, contraception and homosexuality although an FAQ section is not working yet.

Newham has consistently had one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancies in the country although it recorded a major drop last year. According to figures released last week, it had the highest rate of abortions in the country – 39.9 per 1,000 women. Harris, vice-chair of the Lib Dem Federal Policy Committee, added: “Any increased use of faith-based organisations delivering essential public services will need stricter safeguards to prevent discrimination against vulnerable and captive populations on the basis of religion or sexuality, as well as to prevent employees needing to pass ‘faith tests’.

“The Lib Dems have made clear that religious organisations have as much right as anyone else to provide services, but until legal loop-holes are closed we expect the Government to ensure that contracts contain non-discrimination clauses.

The Guardian | Ben Quinn | 30 May 2011

Ireland: victim no more

PZ Myers is a biologist and associate professor at the University of Minnesota, Morris.

It’s as if the media is finally getting it right and timing the news to match the World Atheist Convention in Dublin with stories that show why we must oppose religion. The New York Times tells the story of the Magdalene laundries, in which 30,000 women were used as slave labor (and victims of abuse) to profit the Catholic church. Representatives of the victims are going before the UN to request justice, or at least some sort of rebuke of the church. Somehow, I doubt that they’ll get it — there are a lot of factions squabbling in the UN, and many of them defend religion and care little for women. But we’ll see.

Also, a documentary has been broadcast in Ireland (but it’s also available on the web) describing the horrific abuse of African children by Irish Catholic missionaries. One of the perks of being a missionary in Africa was that one could pick up a young boy or girl for cheap — promise them a path out of grinding poverty, and an education, for instance — and have a live-in sexual servant for the duration of their stay. Don’t watch it if you’re sensitive to personal stories of abuse: they interview many of the victims, who are broken and ashamed and overwhelmed by the betrayals of the church.

Another curious aspect of the story is the dates. The recent Catholic-commissioned John Jay report on Catholic sexual abuses pinned the blame on the hippies and the attitudes towards casual sex of the 60s and 70s (which makes no sense: pedophilia and child rape are not about love). They claim that there was a peak of such abberant behavior that coincided with that period, and that it has declined since. But this report discusses vileness that was being perpetrated in the 80s and 90s.

It sounds to me like the decline wasn’t real. It was just the Catholic church becoming aware of a major PR disaster, and shipping their child-rapin’ priests off to places like Africa and India, or to the Inuit of Canada, where they could destroy the lives of people who didn’t matter…that is, people who didn’t have access to lawyers and the media.

PZ Myers | 30th May 2011

The British Humanist Association is pleased to present an evening in conversation with Humanist of the Year 2009 PZ Myers, and Vice President of the British Humanist Association Richard Dawkins at the Institute of Education in London on Thursday 9th June 2011.

Start time: 7:00pm for 7:30pm start – 8:30pm

Venue: Logan Hall, Institute of Education, 20 Bedford Way, London WC1H 0AL

Tickets: Non-members £6.00 order online here. £4.00 for BHA members order online from here

Malta votes yes to legalising divorce

Malta Today broke a press embargo, for 10pm after voting closes, to reveal that the Maltese Church would tell worshippers and voters of “its sorrow… if anyone felt hurt by any words or action from members of the Church.”

Malta has voted yes in a non-binding referendum on legalising divorce, the island’s prime minister Lawrence Gonzi has conceded.

Almost three-quarters of the electorate voted on Saturday on whether divorce should be introduced in Malta. With a 95% Catholic majority, Malta is the only EU country not to allow divorce. If the referendum result is upheld by parliament it will leave the Philippines as the only country in the world where married couples cannot divorce each other.

Figures gathered by the electoral commission after polling stations had closed showed that turnout was 72%, according to the Times of Malta. “Even though the result is not what I wished for, now it is our duty to see that the will of the majority is respected,” Gonzi said in a televised speech.

Gonzi, who campaigned against the introduction of divorce, said it was now up to parliament to enact a law legalising the dissolution of marriage on the island. The Catholic church supported a no vote during the campaign.

The leader of the yes movement, Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando, of the governing Nationalist party, said the result was significant.

“It brings Malta into a new era where the state and the church are separate,” Orlando told the EFE news agency.

The decision of the 306,000 voters of the conservative and deeply traditional Mediterranean island is further evidence of the waning influence of the church. Legal separation is widespread in the European Union’s smallest state but there are many obstacles to remarrying.

The church did not campaign before the referendum but Malta’s archbishop, Paul Cremona, warned churchgoers in a letter that they faced a choice between building or destroying family values.

A billboard reading Christ Yes, Divorce No in Malta. Photograph: Reuters

Joseph Muscat, the pro-divorce leader of the opposition Labour party, said that a new Malta had been born. He urged a divorce debate in parliament as soon as possible, saying that he was confident that anti-divorce Labour MPs would not thwart the will of the people.

Divorce legislation is expected to squeeze through parliament as the ruling Nationalist party has a one-seat majority.

Mario Fava, a 37-year-old office manager who has been legally separated for seven years with no chance of remarrying, said he was delighted by the result. “It is a very positive outcome, with 54% in favour. After such a long time most people can now make use of this new freedom so definitely it’s a step in the right direction.

“Obviously it’s very different from a general election so while everybody who voted yes is delighted, there are no street celebrations going on, no car cavalcades or anything like that.”

Malta was occupied by Arab invaders in the 10th century before mounting a fierce fightback against an Ottoman siege in 1565. A century-and-a-half of British rule, which ended in 1964, put an Anglo-Saxon stamp on the culture but Malta remained a strongly Catholic country. The country also forbids abortion. Pope Benedict XVI visited the island last year.

For weeks Malta has been plastered with posters showing a picture of a child alongside the slogan: “I trust you with my future – vote No.”

In the referendum, Maltese voters were asked whether parliament should introduce a new law that would allow couples to obtain a divorce after four years of separation.

Previously, couples could apply for a legal separation in the courts, or seek a church annulment – a complex process that can take up to nine years. A third option was to get divorced abroad, which would be recognised as valid in Malta.

Chile was the last country to legalise divorce in 2004 after overwhelming public pressure.

Fighting between the yes and no camps continued right up until the polls closed, in spite of a ban on influencing voters. There were local reports of pressure on voters, especially the elderly and vulnerable, to come out and vote against the divorce proposals, while some blog posts showed pictures of elderly people and nuns at the polling station with the caption “are you prepared to leave your future in their hands?”

Philippines

With its 7,107 islands and a population of 94 million people, the republic of the Philippines couldn’t seem more different at first glance to Malta. The world’s twelfth populous country is 90% Christian, of whom 80% are Catholic. The faith was brought to the islands by Ferdinand Magellan, the Portuguese explorer who served Spain’s King Charles I in his quest for a westward route to the Spice Islands. Should Malta ratify its referendum the Philippines will be the last remaining state (along with Vatican City) to forbid divorce.

The Guardian | David Sharrock | 29th May 2011

Russia: Moscow police break up Gay Pride protest

At least 18 arrested at Kremlin and City Hall

Moscow – 28 May 2011

“At least 18 gay rights protesters were arrested today, 28 May, as they tried to stage a banned Gay Pride parade,” reports British human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, who was part of the protest group in Moscow.

“Eight people were seized by the Kremlin: international gay rights supporters Andy Thayer, Dan Choi and Louis-Georges Tin; plus Moscow Gay Pride committee member, Anna Komarova and other Russian gay activists (names unknown).

“A further three Russian lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) campaigners were arrested outside City Hall.

“These arrests took place between 1pm and 2pm Moscow time.

“I went to City Hall but was separated from our protest group. Neo-Nazis identified me for attack. Being alone and without police protection, I had to escape down side streets and alleyways to avoid a beating.

“Dan Choi, a former US military officer who was dismissed from the American armed forces because of his homosexuality, was violently manhandled by police. He was wrestled to ground and punched. He has some minor injuries.

“Neo-Nazis made repeated attempts to bash the LGBT campaigners as they were being arrested and taken to police buses. Some of the campaigners were struck but none were hurt seriously.

“The whereabouts of some of the arrested persons is unknown at this time.

“Dan Choi and Louis-Georges Tin are being processed at Presnensky Police Station. They are appearing before a police court. Some others are being held at Tverskaya police station.

“Anna Komarova, who is under arrest, reports being pressured by the police to give information about the organisation of Moscow Gay Pride. The police are threatening to detain her for 48 hours unless she gives them the information they want.

“Neither of the Moscow Gay Pride lead organisers, Nikolai Alekseev nor Nikolai Baev, have been arrested. It is unclear whether Mr Alekseev participated in the protests, as he has a bad leg injury from a fall as he left Moscow TV studios on Thursday night,” said Mr Tatchell.

Peter Tatchell | 28th May 2011

UK: faith schools admissions policies are discriminatory

The National Secular Society’s Keith Porteous Wood and Stephen Evans met with senior officials from the Department of Education’s admissions policy team last week to discuss concerns over religious schools ahead of the imminent publications of the new admissions code.

Stephen Evans, NSS Campaigns Manager, said; “while we’re more than happy to accept a simplified code, what we can’t accept is a weakened code that gives religious schools wiggle room to use backdoor selection to cherry pick children from more affluent families.”

There is clear evidence that the discriminatory admissions policies operated by some religious schools, in addition to being unfair, encourage social segregation and are detrimental to community cohesion.

New ‘free schools’ must take 50 per cent of pupils without reference to religion, but concerns were raised earlier this year when Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, told the Jewish Chronicle that, once the 50 per cent quota had been reached, new Jewish free schools would still be able to fill the remainder of places with Jewish children. The Department assured us there was no mechanism whereby this could be achieved. Officials at the Department assured us that the new admissions code would be at least as rigorous as the current code. It is open to question however, how many parents not of the faith would wish to send their children to a minority religious school.

A senior official of the Department’s extremism unit, who also attended the meeting, assured us that groups advocating creationism as a scientific theory, and those with values “inconsistent with British democratic principles” would automatically have any free school applications refused.

The NSS also raised concerns over proposals in the Education Bill that could spell the end of local admissions forums and a weakening of the powers of the Schools Adjudicator. While no agreement was reached, it was made clear that new proposals in the admissions code could go some way to increasing local accountability of schools in relation to admissions.

This was the first time the NSS has met with the Department since last year’s election and the meeting was very positive.

National Secular Society | Fri, 20 May 2011

See also: Bishop admits that church schools succeed because of selection

UK: Faith schools continue to cause segregation in Oldham

Pupils at Grange School in Oldham in 2007 - the study says children still face segregation in the town. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

An upcoming study will show that, a decade on from the race riots, Oldham schools have made little progress in reducing ethnic segregation, and that ‘faith’ schools present a large barrier to integration.

The Oldham riots peaked ten years ago today, and the Cantle report, the Home Office inquiry into its causes that was published seven months later, found that ‘many communities operate on the basis of a series of parallel lives’ – and that ‘faith’ schools had a big role to play in this. The report proposed that all ‘faith’ schools should give a minimum of 25% of their places to pupils of other faiths in order to increase diversity within the town’s schools.

Simultaneously the Ritchie report, commissioned by the Government, borough and local police authority concluded that ‘in our view it is desirable in principle that as many schools as possible, should have mixed intake so that children growing up can learn one another’s customs and cultural  backgrounds and accept that stereotypes and racism are unacceptable.

The Cantle report’s proposal was rejected by Government ministers, and in an article ahead of publication of new research, academics from the University of Bristol have found that very little has changed since: ‘More than one third of primary schools and over 40% of secondary schools in Oldham are Roman Catholic or Church of England faith schools including demonstrable practice of a faith among their admissions criteria. If such practices have cultural and ethnic underpinnings – which they do – then including them among the admissions criteria is unlikely to aid mixing within schools.

British Humanist Association Faith Schools Campaigns Officer Richy Thompson commented, ‘It is a damning indictment of ‘faith’ schools that we now have three separate reports pointing to them as a key factor for the division in Oldham that ultimately led to violence.

‘The only way really to improve community cohesion is to replace ‘faith’ schools with community schools, that aim to serve the whole of the town’s population, as opposed to fuelling disharmony and division through segregation based on  religious belief. This way, children can form friendships with children from all backgrounds found within the community.’

British Humanist Association | 26th May 2011

Notes

For further comment or information, contact Richy Thompson on 020 7462 4993.

Read more about the BHA’s work on ‘faith’ schools.

Read the Cantle Report ‘Community Cohesion: A Report of the Independent Review Team’, December 2001

Read the Ritchie Report ‘Oldham Independent Review’, December 2001

Read the University of Bristol article ‘Oldham lives: still parallel or converging?’

UK: Government appoints anti-abortion group as sexual health adviser

A group which is opposed to abortion in all circumstances and favours an abstinence-based approach to sex education has been appointed to advise the government on sexual health.

The Life organisation has been invited to join a new sexual health forum set up to replace the Independent Advisory Group on Sexual Health and HIV.

Stuart Cowie, Life’s head of education, said: “We are delighted to be invited into the group, representing views that have not always been around on similar tables in the past.”

In contrast, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) has been omitted from the forum despite its long-term position on the previous advisory group and 40-year track record in providing pregnancy counselling nationwide.

“We are disappointed and troubled to learn that having initially been invited to the sexual health forum we have been disinvited, particularly now we understand that Life have been offered a seat at the table,” said Ann Furedi, chief executive of BPAS. “We find it puzzling that the Department of Health would want a group that is opposed to abortion and provides no sexual health services on its sexual health forum.”

Cowie said Life would seek to build “common ground” with other members of the panel. “If we can be involved with other people in reducing [the number of abortions], then that fits with our charitable objectives and I don’t think is unpalatable to anyone else, regardless of their position on when life begins.”

However, Life’s support for greater emphasis on abstinence when it comes to sexual education is likely to be one of a number of areas where it will be on a collision course with other members of forum. For example, Life has been critical of literature about contraception distributed by the sexual health charity, Brook. They will sit alongside each other at the forum. Life claimed that teenagers were not being told that condoms only gave partial protection against some STIs (sexually transmitted infections) and little or no protection against others.

Brook’s national director, Simon Blake, said its literature was based on clinical evidence, and linked the provision of such information to underlying figures from abortion statistics released on Tuesday which showed a reduction in teenage conceptions despite an overall rise in the number of abortions. The under-18 abortion rate has reduced from 17.6 per 1,000 women in 2009 to 16.5 per 1,000 women in 2010.

Blake said: “Having made such massive progress, what we have to do is sustain that … and not go back to a time when the young had really poor sexual and relationship education and see a rise in teenage pregnancy rates and sexually transmitted infections as a result.”

The new committee has held one meeting but Life was not represented. The invitation to the group by Anne Milton, the public health minister, appears to have caught some forum members by surprise.

It could yet open up another area of disagreement within the coalition. The former Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris, warned that the organisation’s presence could prevent the panel functioning properly. “When you have an organisation campaigning against the law and against current policy on sexual health, which is pro-contraception and about ensuring that abortion is a choice, then the risk is that you prevent the panel being given access to confidential information,” he said.

“It can prevent the advisory panel having frank and open discussions because you have a group there that is committed to opposing current policy.”

A Department of Health spokesperson said: “To provide balance, it is important that a wide range of interests and views are represented on the forum.

“Marie Stopes International and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service have similar interests. We offered them shared membership but they declined, and after careful consideration we concluded that it was not feasible to invite both organisations.”

BPAS asserts that the department withdrew the offer of ‘shared membership’.

The forum consists of representatives of the British Association for Sexual Health and HIV; the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Health at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists; the Association of Directors of Public Health; the British HIV Association; the Terrence Higgins Trust; Brook; the Family Planning Association; the Sex Education Forum and National Children’s Bureau; Marie Stopes International; and Life.

The department said the criteria applied in terms of appointments to the group was that the core membership would be drawn from national level organisations with a remit covering sexual health across England. They also had to be able to demonstrate clear evidence of impact in improving sexual health and must have a sufficient infrastructure to be able to field deputies at a senior level in the organisation.

Life also became a founding member last week of a new Sex and Relationships Council, which was launched in parliament with the endorsement of the education secretary, Michael Gove.

The council, which includes the Christian-run pro-abstinence group the Silver Ring Thing, says it aims to bring the voice of what it describes as “value-based, parent centred” sex and relationship education (SRE) providers to policy discussions on the future of SRE in schools.

A total of 189,574 abortions were performed in 2010 – a 0.3% increase on the previous year, the figures released on Tuesday show.

Marie Stopes described the rise as small but warned that the figures sent a warning for the government’s family planning strategy.

“There are three key areas that need to be focused on: education, access and choice,” it said, calling for the delivery of “comprehensive and standardised sex and relationship education in all schools”.

In its response to the figures, the Family Planning Association said: “Clearly there needs to be a much better relationship and tighter integration between local contraceptive and abortion services. Despite the advances, women still live in a postcode lottery. Where you live dictates how quickly you’ll get an abortion. This is unacceptable.”

Life, which provides its own pregnancy counselling services and describes itself as non-denominational, reacted to the figures by suggesting that a “cooling off” period before abortions could play a role in reducing the number being performed.

Some secular organisations have been growing increasingly worried that Tory ministers are opening up government to the agendas of faith-based and pro-life groups.

Some of the same groups have already been preparing to capitalise on the government’s big society agenda, which would potentially allow them to replace secular groups in terms of providing services.

In Richmond, south-west London, the Catholic Children’s Society has taken over the £89,000 contract to provide advice to schoolchildren on matters including contraception and pregnancies. Another Christian-run charity, Care Confidential, is involved in providing crisis pregnancy advice under the auspices of Newham PCT in east London. Care’s education arm, Evaluate, was one of the founding members, alongside Life, of the Sex and Relationships Council.

Meanwhile in parliament, the battle lines on abortion are set to be drawn again after cross-party amendments to the health and social care bill were put forward by anti-abortion MPs in a bid to tighten the rules on terminations.

The first amendment, put forward by Nadine Dorries and Frank Field, would establish a new precondition for any women having an abortion to receive advice and counselling from an organisation that does not itself carry out terminations.

The Guardian | Ben Quinn | 24th May 2011

European Humanist Federation (EHF) has fruitful meeting with Hungarian Presidency of the EU

On the 24th of May 2011, the European Humanist Federation (EHF) met the Hungarian revolving Presidency of the European Union in Budapest to expose its views on humanist and secularist issues in Europe.

The EHF delegation was composed of David Pollock (President) and Pierre Galand (Vice-President). For their part, Churches had met the Hungarian Presidency in January.

This meeting is a step forward in the history of relationships between the EU and the humanist and secularist community : for several years, revolving presidencies had taken the habit to meet with churches.
For the first time under the Belgian Presidency (July-December 2010), the EHF was invited to convey humanist concerns as well.

After a brief discussion on the place of religions and humanism and secularism in Europe, EHF raised more specifically the following issues:

The Hungarian Presidency’s initiative on family policy and demographics

Whilst EHF has no objection to reasonable encouragement of larger families, it is concerned that it should not produce family poverty and is equally concerned about any moves that further restrict women’s freedom over their own lives, especially any restrictions on the availability of contraception and of abortion.

On the new Hungarian Constitution

EHF recognises the high aspirations of the new constitution. There are, however, some places where it seems that the Constitution falls short of the standards of human rights that we see emerging in Europe.

These points have attracted wide criticism:

  • The constitution takes a very conservative view of marriage and family.
  • The provision that “embryonic and foetal life shall be subject to protection from the moment of conception” is highly problematic.
  • The omission of sexual orientation in the list of prohibited grounds of discriminations, such omission being all the more worrying given that police have taken steps to ban a Gay Pride march next month from approaching the Parliament building.

EHF therefore asks the government to comply with the highest possible standards of protection of fundamental rights, in particular the rights of women and minorities, including sexual minorities.

Freedom of speech, with reference to the new media law in Hungary

Like many, EHF is concerned that the new law gives future governments huge power to control or intimidate the media, with excessive requirements for registration, the threat of excessively heavy fines, and ill-defined requirements for journalists to respect “public morality” and “human dignity” and for reporting to be “balanced” – requirements that will be adjudicated by a media authority that is itself decidedly   unbalanced politically.

European efforts to tackle discriminations

EHF asked what progress the Hungarian Presidency was making in winning approval for the draf Directive on non-discrimination in areas other than employment.

EHF also suggested that there was a serious discrepancy between the standards of human rights and freedom that the EU seeks to enforce on candidate members and on recipients of aid and its failure to enforce those standards within its own frontiers. On the latter, the EU risks being seen as seriously hypocritical, as it does nothing effective to call to account member states that abuse the human rights of refugees, Roma and other unpopular minorities.

EHF wishes to thank the Hungarian authorities for this frank and friendly meeting during which they provided detailed answers to our concerns. Contacts have been made with the next Polish presidency to organise a similar meeting in due time.

European Humanist Federation | 24th May 2011

Vatican: victims dismiss bid to curb abuse as empty

Sue Cox, right, and Ton Leerschool stage a protest in front of Italy's parliament in Rome, Saturday, May 21, 2011.

ROME (AP) — People who were sexually abused by priests gathered in Rome on Saturday to denounce the Vatican’s latest effort to show it is cracking down on clerical abuse and demand greater accountability from the Catholic Church.

About 50 victims, most of them Italian, gathered for a daylong symposium on the psychological and legal issues surrounding abuse. The group, which included several former students of a notorious school for the deaf in Verona where dozens of people reported abuse, ended the day with a march on Italy’s parliament.

Two women hold banners reading "Church without abuses"

One of the organizers, Salvatore Domolo, a 46-year-old ex-priest who says he was abused from age eight to 11 by his parish priest in Novarra, said victims were incensed by the Vatican’s letter this week to bishops around the world asking they write guidelines to combat abuse.

In its letter, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith emphasized the primary role of bishops and religious superiors in handling abuse cases at a time when bishops’ credibility to enforce child protection policies has again been questioned. Recent reports by lay review boards in the U.S. and Ireland have exposed some bishops’ continued stonewalling and unwillingness to report abusers.

And just Saturday, the church and Salesian order in the Netherlands said they were investigating revelations that a Salesian priest served on the board of a group that promotes pedophilia and campaigns to end the Dutch ban on adult-child sex, with the full knowledge of his boss.

The Vatican intended the set of general, nonbinding suggestions as a guide to help bishops’ conferences enact their own anti-abuse policies. Recommendations included listening to victims and offering them spiritual and psychological assistance and making sure priests are educated and trained to live a celibate life.

Victims advocates have dismissed the initiative as toothless since it foresees no enforcement mechanism to ensure bishops actually follow the guidelines they craft, and because it diminishes the role of lay review boards which to date have been the only check on bishops’ compliance.

The letter also told bishops it was “important” to cooperate with police in reporting abuse but didn’t make such reporting mandatory, saying only bishops should report abusers in places where civil law requires it. The Vatican has said mandatory reporting could place clerics in jeopardy in countries with repressive regimes.

Ton Leerschool, of Someren, the Netherlands, said such a vague exhortation to comply with the law was too little too late. “They came out with this big story, a press conference, translations of the letter in all these languages, saying we’re going to comply with civil laws. But what about the last 35 years?” asked Leerschool, who said he was abused by a priest at his boarding school starting at age 13.

Domolo, the former priest, said the Vatican was merely trying to improve its image with the letter. “The document is full of empty words,” he said.

Associated Press | 21st May 2011

A woman holds a sign during a protest in front of Italy's parliament, in Rome, Saturday, May 21, 2011.

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