Protesting the Pope: Sex-Abuse Survivors, Evangelicals, Atheists

By Nicole Neroulias
Journal News
April 19, 2008

NEW YORK - As Pope Benedict XVI prayed for unity at St. Patrick's Cathedral this morning, his presence temporarily brought together protesters including abuse survivors, atheists, fundamentalists, communists, and clowns.

These diverse bands, some of whom had traveled hundreds of miles for the occasion, picketed for hours on Fifth Avenue, shouting conflicting messages from behind police blockades as the pope celebrated Mass a few blocks away.

Only the 30 assembled sexual abuse survivors and their supporters identified themselves as Catholics, but most said they could no longer bring themselves to attend church and said their only desire to see the pope was to ask him to do more to remove clergy involved in the sex abuse scandal.

"There are still pedophile priests in ministry," said Bob M. Hoatson, of West Orange, N.J. "There are bishops who covered all this up, and there are bishops who abused who have not been held accountable."

Hoatson, 56, said he had survived years of abuse after joining the Christian Brothers in New Rochelle, the subject of a lawsuit in state Supreme Court. He and other survivors said they appreciated Benedict's remarks this week expressing sorrow about the abuse and the fact that he met with some victims - more than Pope John Paul II had done, they noted - but said they needed to see more actions than words.

"His comments are promising," said Mark Lyman, 43, of upstate Stillwater, N.Y., who said a priest abused him during his teen years. "I'm skeptical, but I do have some hope that his visit may change things."

A few feet away, three dozen atheists said they just wanted the pope to stop trying to bring religion into the public sphere, to respect America's separation of church and state.

Atheists and abuse survivors alike complained the group assigned to the slot between them - a handful of members of the Westboro Baptist Church, a fundamentalist sect based in Topeka, Kan., shouting Benedict would "burn in hell" - made all protesters look like extremists.

"We're pretty genteel compared to them," said Mario DeOliveira of Yonkers, shaking his head at the group's "Molester Mafia Boss" placard and holding his own up higher: "Pope: My Tax Money Paid For Your Visit."

The tone lightened when a small band of clowns bicycled around the block, honking horns and holding up signs calling the pope a "big clown" himself.

Identifying themselves only by stage names like "Pinkie," they explained they wanted to show how laughable the Vatican's positions on safe sex, homosexuality and abortion have become in modern times.

Their jokes failed to elicit chuckles from the largest protest group today: more than 100 Pentecostal Christians who marched solemnly up Sixth Avenue, escorted by New York City police officers. The members didn't comment on their cause, preferring to sing their anti-pope message in Spanish: "Only Jesus Christ saves."

In the end, none of the groups seemed to faze the thousands of enraptured Catholics who stood for hours along Fifth Avenue, hoping for a glimpse of their spiritual leader heading uptown from the cathedral.

Bill Rosanelli, a high school theology teacher from New Jersey, laughed as he took pictures of the atheists, then joined his wife and daughter around the corner.

"Everyone is entitled to their opinion," he said. "If they want to protest, they protest. But I don't even bother with them."

As the popemobile finally came into sight on Fifth Avenue shortly before 1:30 p.m., the crowds cheered at the waving white figure, then turned away with huge smiles, clutching digital cameras and chattering excitedly into cell phones to friends and family members back home.


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