Fighting for Good Faith

Globe-trotting activist and sexual abuse survivor Gemma Hickey discusses their trip to the Vatican City for a pivotal clergy abuse summit 


Gemma Hickey is a globe-trotting activist. They cover some serious distance – 938km by foot walking across the island in 2015 to raise awareness for clergy abuse, over 10,650km to the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo to petition for marriage equality and a screening of the Just Be Gemma documentary, and most recently, just over 5,000km to Vatican City in Italy, where Hickey joined fellow survivors for a clergy abuse summit, a “Meeting on The Protection of Minors in the Church,” attended by over 100 bishops and the Pope.

Activism abroad

Upon returning from their purposeful adventures, Hickey spoke to The Herald about their activism abroad. Before getting into the details of their time in Italy, Hickey noted that they had absolutely no issues travelling with their gender-neutral passport – one of the first in Canada, and the first of its kind to get into countries like Japan, Germany, England, Italy, and more.

Though it may seem like a minor detail, it’s a major win for Hickey and other non-binary people. 

If you know Hickey at all, this success isn’t surprising – they’re full of success stories, working to ensure that strides are made in areas like human rights, and clergy sexual abuse – the topic of our discussion, and this article.

“As a survivor who was abused by a Roman Catholic priest when I was really young, I felt compelled to travel to Rome for the first-ever summit on clergy sexual abuse in the church,” Hickey shared, reflecting on their trip to Italy, which was funded by Memorial University faculties of Humanities and Social Sciences.

“As the founder of Pathways, I felt that it was important to have representation there, not just for the organization but for the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, because in my opinion, this place is ground zero when it comes to clergy sexual abuse. Once allegations surfaced here, they surfaced all over the world,” Hickey said.

Hickey is referring to the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary’s 1975 investigation into physical and sexual abuse allegations at the Mount Cashel Orphanage, operated by Congregation of Christian Brothers. February 2019 marks 30 years since the case was officially reopened in 1989.

“That was on my mind constantly when I was there,” Hickey said. “Other survivors were aware of Mount Cashel, and in any media interview I did over there, with all kinds of journalists from all around the world, I mentioned Newfoundland and Labrador and Mount Cashel. I felt that was important,” Hickey said.

‘Repression & secrecy’

“It’s isolating to grow up on an island,” they mused, “but it’s also very isolating to be abused by a Catholic priest, because of the culture of repression and secrecy within the church. When you’re able to talk about it openly and be around others, you don’t take it all on. It’s so insular when you have to keep it all in, tucked deep. You don’t have anyone to talk to about it. But when you’re with a group of people who understand, who have been there… It felt like they were my church.”

Hickey felt as if these strangers were part of an extended family.

“I don’t think I was fully able the appreciate the type of journey I was making until I was actually there,” Hickey said of their February trip, recalling a candlelight vigil.

“There were hundreds of us there. People were dancing, drumming, singing, crying, telling their stories. It was just the revving up of emotion. It was electric,” they recalled, pausing before adding, “and painful.”

Though the trip left Hickey feeling “emotionally raw,” it was simultaneously empowering, especially the march through Vatican City.

“Our abused bodies came together, to form one body,” Hickey said of the march. “It was just… beautiful,” they said, struggling to find the right adjective. “It was healing, but also, my wounds had been opened again.”

Pope Francis announced a 21 point plan, which includes updating procedures for victims reporting abuse, and bringing in non-religious experts into church investigations. Increased awareness of cause and consequence, increased support for victims, creating mandatory codes of conduct, and a handbook on how to proceed when a case of abuse emerges are among the 21 points.

“The feeling amongst survivors was that it was maybe too late. And what are you going to do about the claims, all the back claims still being fought in court, all the cover-ups that you’ve contributed to, all the priests still being protected by local dioceses, who are still in the church and haven’t been charged? There were all these questions that survivors had that they just had no way of asking,” Hickey said, explaining that survivors did not have any access to the summit proceedings.

Moving forward

“I don’t know how the church is going to move forward, because for me, where the summit was behind closed doors – how they’ve always been handling things – how do you move towards reconciliation? How do you ensure safety for young people – not just children but also vulnerable young adults – when the contributing factors that allowed (abusers) to thrive in this institution haven’t changed? Those are the kind of questions that have arisen from me and other survivors,” Hickey said.

“As far as survivors are concerned … it’s zero-tolerance or nothing. If you’re going to continue to keep these people as bishops, as priests, there’s no way to go forward.”

In chatting about the 21 point plan, the recent conviction of abuser Cardinal George Pell, accounts from nuns used as sex slaves, and the future of this highly influential religious institution, Hickey explained why it’s so important for the public to keep a keen eye on the Catholic church and the powers within it.

“There are all kinds of different circumstances (of abuse), but the one common denominator is the power of the Catholic church, that enabled abusers to continue doing what they were doing for so long. There’s an untold number of victims out there. We’ll never know how many,” Hickey said, referencing those who have settled out of court, or haven’t come forward, or have died by suicide.

“The church has a lot of work to do. Is the summit a step in the right direction?” Hickey asked. “I’m an optimist, so I’d like to think so.”

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