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St. John's activist headed to Rome university in fight for zero tolerance of abuse by clergy

Gemma Hickey is a survivor of clergy abuse, and an advocate for other survivors of clergy abuse.  (Mark Cumby/CBC - image credit)
Gemma Hickey is a survivor of clergy abuse, and an advocate for other survivors of clergy abuse. (Mark Cumby/CBC - image credit)
Gemma Hickey is a survivor of clergy abuse, and an advocate for other survivors of clergy abuse.
Gemma Hickey is a survivor of clergy abuse, and an advocate for other survivors of clergy abuse.

Gemma Hickey, a survivor of abuse by clergy and an advocate for other survivors of abuse, will travel to Rome this week to give a lecture on a zero-tolerance policy to the next generation of clergy at Pontifical Gregorian University. (Mark Cumby/CBC)

WARNING: This story contains details of child physical and sexual abuse.

A St. John's activist and survivor of sexual abuse by clergy is set to deliver a lecture to one of the Catholic Church's most prestigious universities, with a message of demanding justice for other survivors.

Gemma Hickey, president of advocacy group Ending Clergy Abuse, will speak at the Pontifical Gregorian University this week. The school has deep ties to the Vatican and trains Catholic clergy from around the world.

Hickey's lecture, which they've titled Zero Tolerance: Safeguarding Children and Vulnerable Adults, will provide a Newfoundland and Labrador focus on themes of clericalism, colonialism and the aspects of a zero-tolerance policy for abuse by clergy.

"There's a lot riding on this lecture, but what I'm hoping and what my colleagues and I are hoping is that we go back to Rome in June to meet with theologians, bringing our canon law experts to revise our zero tolerance policy," Hickey said before their trip Monday.

"A priest can rape a child or a vulnerable adult and remain in the position. A bishop can cover up the crimes of his cleric and employees and remain in his position, or even get promoted.… The list goes on and on, and these are the key points that our zero-tolerance policy addresses."

Hickey, raised as a Roman Catholic in St. John's, was sexually abused by a Roman Catholic priest as a youth.

Hickey was part of a pilgrimage of clergy abuse survivors who travelled to Rome in September. They brought a message of justice and demands to adopt the policy — notably, by carrying an eight-foot cross to the steps of the Vatican — but says their message to Pope Francis didn't get through.

Gemma Hickey is pictured here on a previous trip to the Vatican in 2021. Now, Hickey is headed back to demand accountability from the Catholic Church for clergy abuse victims.
Gemma Hickey is pictured here on a previous trip to the Vatican in 2021. Now, Hickey is headed back to demand accountability from the Catholic Church for clergy abuse victims.

Hickey is pictured here on a previous trip to the Vatican in 2021. They also travelled there in September to demand accountability from the Catholic Church for victims of abuse by clergy. (Submitted by Gemma Hickey)

They still see the pilgrimage as a success, however, as it opened doors with Vatican officials and led to the lecture becoming a reality. Hickey has even accepted an invitation to stay in university residence in an effort to maximize their time with officials in the country.

"It's triggering for me, you know, and I work through that," Hickey said.

"After taking … millions of steps, I'm one step closer to this goal. And I'm really, really enthused and excited about this possibility and where these discussions will [lead]. Because it really means a great deal to me and to survivors from around the world that this be put in place."

Hickey said survivors in Newfoundland and Labrador will be on their mind during the lecture, as they have helped bring the issue of abuse by clergy into the spotlight across Canada and the world.

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