02/23/2019 10:44 EST | Updated 02/23/2019 10:55 EST

Canadian Sex Abuse Survivors Shed Their Shame At Historic Vatican Summit

People from around the world have gathered to push for reform within the Catholic Church.

Simone Padovani/Awakening
From left to right: Leona Huggins, Evelyn Korkmaz and Bernadette Howell travelled to the Vatican as part of the Ending Clergy Abuse group to advocate for sex abuse victims at a historic summit Feb. 18, 2019.

On her first trip to the Vatican, Leona Huggins was gripped with fear and shame each time she saw a priest.

The then-21-year-old university graduate went there in 1984, spurred by a love of art and the Catholic Church, but also carrying a secret. For the past decade, she had been sexually abused by her Vancouver parish priest.

"I felt like I carried the scarlet letter. I didn't tell a soul, I couldn't tell a soul," Huggins told HuffPost Canada.

Leona Huggins/Supplied
Leona Huggins on her first trip to Rome in 1984.

More than three decades later, she's back in Rome for a historic summit on clergy abuse. This time she feels herself healing, shedding the shame.

"I leave it all here to the power of this institution. And if they aren't going to deal with it, the shame is theirs to keep," Huggins said.

Huggins is part of the global justice project, Ending Clergy Abuse, a group demanding Pope Francis and Catholic leaders apologize for sexually abusing parishioners for decades, and enact widespread reform with a zero-tolerance policy. Pope Francis summoned 190 bishops and Catholic leaders for a four-day tutorial to prevent abuse.

Huggins was first groomed by Rev. John Edward McCann when she was 11 years old, she said. He showered her with the attention that her parents, who were raising 12 children, couldn't give her. Then the sexual abuse began.

Simone Padovani/Awakening
Leona Huggins with a message to Pope Francis for the Summit of The Protection Of Minors In The Church on Feb. 18, 2019 in Rome.

It wasn't until Huggins was 29 that she reported the abuse to the police. McCann was convicted in 1992 for crimes against her and another woman, but she said she found out in 2011 that he was again serving in the ministry. He died last year.

"I would've never imagined I'd be here," Huggins said.

She is joined in Italy by two other Canadians, Bernadette Howell from Vancouver and Evelyn Korkmaz from Ottawa. Howell said she was abused by a Catholic priest as a young woman in England and Ireland. Like Huggins, she said she kept it a secret for a long time.

"I felt like I had ruined a priest's life — that I had been responsible for breaking his vows. That's what perpetrators do, they make you feel like you're to blame for what actually happened," Howell said.

Simone Padovani/Awakening
Evelyn Korkmaz, a victim from Canada, holds a sign with her message to Pope Francis on Feb. 18, 2019, in Rome.

Korkmaz attended St. Anne's, one of Canada's most horrific residential schools, from 1969 to 1972. An Ontario Provincial Police investigation in the 1990s found that at St. Anne's, children had been subjected to whipping and torture by priests, nuns and workers, and identified dozens of suspects. Five people were convicted.

Kormaz said when she was 10 years old, she was gang-raped by other students, who were in turn sexually and physically abused by priests and nuns. Nothing was ever done about the crime, she said.

Korkmaz said she had originally requested Prime Minister Justin Trudeau go to Rome to ask the Pope to apologize. "He didn't and that's why I'm here," she said, demanding that anyone who commits the sexual abuse, or tries to cover it up, is removed from the church.

Sex abuse survivor Bernadette Howell (left) cries as she listens to Evelyn Korkamaz, another survivor, during a press conference of members of Ending Clergy Abuse in Rome, Feb. 22, 2019.

"We need to speak for the future children so they have happy, healthy lives not destroyed like ours were. The Pope is the head of the church. He needs to be the one who comes over and says I'm sorry for the damage done," Korkmaz said.

In recent years, Trudeau and MPs have asked the Pope to apologize to residential school survivors, but he has declined.

Watch: Pope Francis speaks wants action from church leaders. Story continues below.

For decades, countries around the world, including Canada and the U.S., have documented cases of Catholic officials sexually abusing children, despite the church's attempt to cover up the incidents. Pope Francis himself admitted to making mistakes last year when handling a sex abuse crisis in Chile.

Opening the summit earlier this week, the Pope said the Catholic church needs "concreteness" when addressing sexual abuse within its ranks.

"We hear the little ones asking for justice. The weight of the pastoral and the church's responsibility weighs on our meeting and forces us to discuss in a synodal, sincere and deep way how to face this evil that afflicts the church and humanity," Pope Francis told his cardinals, archbishops and bishops.

"May the Virgin Mary enlighten us to try to heal grave wounds that the pedophilia scandal has caused to both the young and believers."

Bernadette Howell tells her story during a press conference in Rome, Feb. 22, 2019.

Howell hopes the survivors sharing their stories at the summit will help Catholics become more aware of the problem — that it could be happening in their local church.

"It's when vulnerability intersects with power, and that's where abuse can take place," Howell said. "I don't think they (Catholics) actually recognize what is happening to survivors who feel isolated, who are no longer able to be at church.

"Church was very important to me, but unfortunately I no longer feel welcome."

If you need help or support for sexual assault, visit the Canadian Association Of Sexual Assault Centres website to find resources near you.