This activist is bringing the message of ‘zero tolerance’ for clergy abuse to the doorstep of the Vatican

CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) [Toronto, Canada]

September 17, 2023

By William Ping

Gemma Hickey leading a pilgrimage through Rome, timed with an important papal event

For Gemma Hickey, their trip to Italy this week is a mission to demand that Pope Francis sign a proposed zero tolerance law for clergy abuse.

“Shuffling predator priests around from place to place is unacceptable,” said Hickey, who founded the Pathways Foundation that addresses the gaps in service for individuals who have experienced abuse within religious institutions. 

Hickey, along with 10 other clergy abuse survivors and allies, is engaging in a pilgrimage to Rome. They will carry an eight-foot wooden cross and walk 120 kilometres from Montefiascone to Italy’s capital, finishing in St. Peter’s Square during the Pope’s noon blessing on Sept. 27. 

“As we travel by foot, from town to town, we’ll be encouraging locals to report incidents of abuse by clergy to the authorities,” Hickey said.

The timing of this pilgrimage is equally important as it coincides with the Pope’s Synod, a large meeting of Catholic officials at the Vatican.

It’s where bishops and cardinals travel from all over the world to attend the Synod and discuss the future of the church.

“But on the agenda, there’s no clergy sexual abuse,” Hickey said. “Doing the pilgrimage around the Pope’s Synod is to bring the message to the Pope that zero tolerance is what we want written into law.”

For Hickey, this is an especially personal cause as a survivor of clergy abuse. 

Hickey has been an advocate for victims of sexual abuse for more than a decade and founded founded the groups Pathways and ACTS Canada. They previously lead a similar walk across Newfoundland in July 2015 in an effort to improve services for abuse victims. Their success with that walk inspired them to plan the pilgrimage.

“Now we’re bringing it to Rome,” Hickey said. “To raise awareness and reaffirm our commitment to this cause and how important it is and relevant, particularly back home now as claims are being finalized with the archdiocese.”

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. John’s went into bankruptcy protection after the courts found it liable for abuse at Mount Cashel orphanage. It is facing claims that could exceed $50 million and has sold off a wide array of assets — churches, rectories, parish halls and vacant land — in order to compensate victims.

“They’ve pitted parishioners against survivors and torn communities apart because people have to lose their churches while the Vatican remains cloaked in wealth,” Hickey said. “And it’s wrong.”

While Hickey’s 2015 walk was a fundraiser, the pilgrimage is not. The trip to Rome has been primarily funded by Budden & Associates, a law firm which represents several Mount Cashel survivors. 

“This isn’t a fundraiser because we’ve already paid enough,” Hickey said. “It’s about amplifying survivor’s voices and holding the church to account.”

Hickey said the stories and experiences of other clergy abuse survivors will be high on their mind during the pilgrimage. They said they’ll be carrying their stories with them the whole way. 

“There’s no confessional wide enough to hear the things that I have heard,” they said.

That’s along with the large wooden cross which Hickey will literally be carrying. Hickey said the carrying of the cross symbolizes how their faith continues despite the church’s history of abuse.

“Not every survivor has turned away from their faith,” Hickey said. “Carrying this cross will be a symbol of the sacrifices that survivors have made, the sacrifices that parishioners have made.”

Hickey said they’re hopeful the Pope and the Catholic Church will listen to their message this time. 

“It’s hard to hold out hope, but we have to try,” Hickey said. “Even if one person listens, that’s a start.”

Hickey’s trip will also involve visits to the United Nations in Geneva and the International Court of Justice at the Hague, Netherlands to promote their zero tolerance message.

Additionally, Hickey will be giving talks at Canadian embassies on the potential risks facing members of the LGBTQ community when they travel. Hickey received one of Canada’s first gender-neutral passports, with their gender identified as “X,”  a symbol for people who don’t identify as male or female.

“If I want to travel, with an X on my passport, I could be put to death, I could be thrown in jail. So this is the reality that people like me are facing, especially now where hate is on the rise,” Hickey said.

“I don’t do these types of things for any kind of attention, I never asked for this life. I do this out of necessity because our rights are never given to us and we’ve had to fight for every single one.”


William Ping


William Ping is a newsreader and journalist with CBC at its bureau in St. John’s.