Deaf Argentine abuse survivors target pope with defiant message

Dario THUBURN
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The survivors have requested an audience with Pope Francis and are hoping to consult files relating to the Provolo Institute in the Vatican

The survivors have requested an audience with Pope Francis and are hoping to consult files relating to the Provolo Institute in the Vatican (AFP Photo/Fabrice COFFRINI)

Geneva (AFP) - Three deaf survivors of clerical sexual abuse from Argentina say they want Pope Francis finally to live up to his promises of reform -- and they are taking their call directly to the Vatican this week.

The three told AFP they were "tortured" by their abusers but now felt emboldened after a high-profile trial in their case last year that put two priests behind bars for decades in the pope's homeland.

"In the world there are a lot of countries where these things continue to happen and there's silence," said Daniel Sgardelis, 45, speaking through a sign language interpreter during a visit to the UN in Geneva.

Sgardelis was abused by Nicola Corradi, an Italian priest sentenced to 42 years in prison in Argentina in November for assaulting some 20 children at the Provolo Institute for children with hearing and speech disorders.

An Argentine priest, Horacio Corbacho, was sentenced to 45 years in prison at the same trial -- one of several involving the school, some of which are still going on.

The abuse scandal is one of thousands that have shaken the Catholic Church, mainly in Europe and the United States.

The Church has been accused of covering up this abuse for decades by moving abusing priests between different parishes and countries -- a practice that Pope Francis has vowed to end.

- 'Code of silence' -

Claudia Labeguerie, 26, another survivor from the Provolo Institute, said she believed there were still abusive priests being protected by the Church.

"The pope knows that they should be incarcerated but even so he doesn't do anything about it. I would like to know why there's nothing being done about it," she said.

"There is still a lot of abuse, a lot of victims, victims just like us and it's necessary for the laws to change."

The survivors have requested an audience with Pope Francis and are hoping to consult files relating to the Provolo Institute in the Vatican after the pope last year said he was lifting papal secrecy in abuse cases.

"I want to tell the pope that we have power and strength and we have all the strength to continue fighting for justice," said 19-year-old Ezequiel Villalonga.

The survivors said they would be travelling to Rome later this week after meeting the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in Geneva.

The independent committee of experts issued a scathing report in 2014 on the Vatican's handling of abuse cases, accusing the Church of imposing a "code of silence".

- 'It's still there' -

Peter Isely, a founding member of Ending Clergy Abuse (ECA), a non-governmental organisation that is assisting the survivors' visit to Europe, said he believed many abuse scandals had simply not been uncovered yet.

"It's going to explode again.... In Latin America, in Africa, in Asia this is still just beginning," Isely said.

"We are a long ways from solving this problem. This case... demonstrates everything that's wrong still with this issue and what needs to change," he said.

Gerald Staberock, head of the Geneva-based World Organisation Against Torture, said there had been promises from the Church to co-operate in abuse investigations but in many countries "this remains an uphill battle".

"We're not talking about something that is past, it's still present. It's still there," he said.

Isely said he had received no reply to the request for an audience with Pope Francis for the survivors.

Still, for Villalonga, victory in last year's trial in Argentina has brought some respite after dark years.

"I waited a long time and I thought that justice wasn't going to come and I cried a lot," he said.

"But in the trial, I cried happiness and I stopped being a victim."