Earning Contempt

April 17, 2009

By: Janice Kennedy, The Ottawa Citizen

Beckett Personal Injury Office's Scales of Justice's article image

On Good Friday, with the ringing moral authority of a global spiritual leader, Pope Benedict XVI grandly (and without irony) condemned a world in which religion, particularly Catholicism, is increasingly being ridiculed.


Personally, I’d introduce him to two terrific guys I’ll call “Don” and “Ron.” A court-ordered publication ban means I can’t use their real names, the ones they received more than 50 years ago when they were baptized at St. Mary’s in Wilno, an imposing Catholic church their ancestors helped build when the first Poles settled Renfrew County 150 years ago.

Cousins and lifelong friends, Don and Ron share a painful biography that should be required reading in the Vatican’s gilded halls.

The two were victims of Monsignor Bernard Prince, sentenced in January 2008 to four years in federal prison for pedophiliac sexual abuse, though he could be paroled as early as this summer.

Prince is the dynamic Wilno native who deftly climbed the church ladder to positions of no small influence within the Vatican. Urbane and smart, lover of fine wines and liquors, collector, world traveller, owner of homes in Ontario, Florida, Rome and the Italian countryside — he hobnobbed with the rich and famous. (There are pictures of Prince introducing Céline Dion to his good friend, the late John Paul II.) When he came home on his regular visits, he dazzled the good people of Wilno.

It was during those extended visits, when he often filled in for the local priest, that he cut a swath through the boys of the community, many of whom attended Prince’s criminal trial last year and testified against him. Among the numerous victims, Don and Ron were the youngest, just eight and nine when he started preying on them sexually. Everybody did it, he told them in their hurt and confusion — setting into motion the unravelling that would mark their lives for decades to come.

“We were just kids. We didn’t even know what sex was,” says Ron bitterly before describing the years of misery and self-destruction that lay ahead for those earnest little boys.

Both men have a history of addictions, although Don hasn’t had a drink in years and Ron no longer dulls the pain with drugs. Thanks to psychotherapy sessions they attend regularly and gratefully, the insomnia is not as bad, they’re no longer suicidal and the nightmares are less frequent. For the first time in decades, they participate more fully in family life, and both are facing their demons (most of the time) with clarity and strength. All this has so far cost OHIP an estimated $25,000 each — none of which, of course, will be billed to the imprisoned monsignor or the organization he worked for.

Some memories can not be erased. Ron remembers the sick feeling he got when Prince casually asked his mother if the boy could come and cut his lawn. Don still can’t smell chlorine without feeling panicky, since the pool Prince had built at his place — always a big draw for youngsters, like the Thunderbird he drove — was where he was abused repeatedly, one time almost drowning.

Both recall the popular priest’s easy interaction with their parents after mass — just before he sexually abused their sons, many of them altar boys. One victim who testified was a kid Prince himself had baptized, son of a lifelong friend.

On Good Friday, Pope Benedict observed that “the sense of the sacred is allowed to erode” because “things that are most holy and profound in the faith are being trivialized.” Too bad he couldn’t hear Ron recalling the day in the sacristy, after he’d served mass for Prince, when the priest told him he’d been thinking about him so much the whole time he was saying mass that he had an erection.

Although I am a fairly cynical old bird, I remain a practising Catholic. So it is difficult to describe the depth of my reaction to that, although something akin to shock and sorrow comes close. Non-Catholics might be appropriately disgusted, but they can’t know the Catholic’s sense of personal spiritual upheaval, of betrayal, in the face of such a revelation. How much more overwhelming, then, was the compounded betrayal felt by the Dons and Rons of the world?

It will come as no surprise to hear that the cousins no longer attend the church of their ancestors. Prince robbed them of that spiritual comfort, they say, just as he robbed them of their cultural ties to it.

But they have not found the institution much better. Like the rest of the known Prince victims, they have been offered no apology (the pope’s general mea culpas don’t count) and no meaningful help, materially or spiritually. They wonder what their battered lives have been worth to this church into which they were baptized, testing their curiosity with other victims through civil action launched against Prince and the diocese of Pembroke. And they have built a website (http://justiceforprince.wilno.com), hoping to reach out to other victims, while educating people generally about priestly sexual abuse from the victims’ viewpoint.

Yet more proof that the church’s dirty little secret is no longer being kept, the site is excellent, if distressing. Someone should bring it to Benedict’s attention.

Especially before he makes any more speeches denouncing those who hold the church, and organized religion, in contempt

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