Thousands of people around the world have spoken out about abuse by the clergy [EPA] 

A group of Italian victims of child sex abuse by the Roman Catholic clergy have called for the widespread abuse to be declared a crime against humanity.

The international appeal was launched on Saturday in Verona during the first public gathering of such victims in Italy.

Salvatore Domolo, a former victim and an ex-priest, said the group was looking abroad for solidarity because justice for paedophilia victims was hard to come by in Italy where legal proceedings cannot be initiated more than 10 years after a crime is committed.

"Here there is no hope. By the time a victim arrives at the awareness of having been a victim, legal intervention is not possible," Domolo said.

"The complicity of the hierarchy, together with the enormity of the numbers and vast geography of these crimes, should lead us to consider that we are facing a crime against humanity carried out by a political-religious organisation,'' he told a news conference.

Italy has long been reluctant to confront the Vatican over the abuse charges. 

While Italian bishops have acknowledged 100 sexual abuse cases that warranted church intervention in the last decade, victims believe the true number in the country is much higher because the reluctance to speak out is stronger there than elsewhere.

'Fundamental gathering'

"This gathering is fundamental because we live in a social situation in which the presence of the Catholic church reduces the possibility of talking about the situation,'' Domolo said.

"The worst was my family. They refused to believe it was true"

Francesco, abuse victim

He said he had been a victim of his parish priest from age 8 to 12, and that he was forced to confess "as if I had sinned".

Domolo, 45, was a priest for 15 years. He renounced both the priesthood and his Roman Catholic faith after meeting another victim on a trip to Ireland in 2001.

A man named Francesco, who did not give his surname, told the group he had been abused both by priests and nuns who used punishment as an excuse to touch him inappropriately.

"The worst was my family. They refused to believe it was true," he said.

Several dozen victims and family members came to the Verona gathering, which organisers hope will help isolated victims to know they are not alone and persuade an Italian public reluctant to believe priests and nuns could have committed such crimes.

Suicides

The meeting was held opposite Verona's heavily visited Roman colosseum and advertised with placards outside. Passers-by were free to enter, but few did.

Another gathering will be held in Rome at the end of October. 

Verona was chosen for the first meeting because it is the home of a school for the deaf where 67 former students have alleged suffering sexual abuse, paedophilia and corporal punishment from the 1950s to early 1980s.

Since the publication in November 2009 of a report revealing serial abuse of children by priests in Ireland, thousands of victims around the globe have spoken out about priests who molested children, bishops who covered up for them and Vatican officials who turned a blind eye to the problem for decades.

In the latest admission, hundreds of victims came forward in Belgium with tales of abuse linked to at least 13 suicides.

Source: Agencies