May 2, 1986 was the first time Father John S. Hoehl’s sexual abuse of children appears to have come to light.
That was the day a 28-year-old man told the Diocese of Pittsburgh the priest, who was also a school headmaster, had abused him from 1972 when he was a 14-year-old high school freshman to 1979 when he was a university senior.
Hoehl had fondled him, and the priest and the teenager had performed mutual masturbation and oral sex on each other on a regular basis, according to an explosivePennsylvania grand jury report released in mid-August, which includes links to a York Region treatment centre for Catholic clergy.
At the time the disclosure was made, Hoehl was living in his church’s rectory with a young man. Also found in the rectory were drug paraphernalia, condoms and pornographic videos and literature, the report said.
In time, abuse suffered during the 1970s and 80s by other victims of the priest would come to light, including a 15-year-old boy who was sodomized at least twice, a nine-year-old boy who had oral sex performed on him and a teenage girl who was held down by an older student for the priest to rape, it said.
When two other boys ran into Hoehl’s office to rescue her, the priest agreed to release the girl if they would take her place and then sodomized them, the report said.
Four days after the 28-year-old man came forward, Hoehl was sent to Southdown Institute, then on St. John’s Sideroad in Aurora and now on Old Yonge Street in Holland Landing.
Founded in 1966, Southdown is a Catholic treatment centre for clients, mostly clergy, suffering from mental health struggles such as addiction and depression.
It’s also where priests who have sexually preyed on children have been sent for treatment, including at least one, the late Father Barry Glendinning, who served at Our Lady of Grace in Aurora in the 1980s.
Transferred for years to various parishes in Canada, Glendinning was eventually convicted of six counts of gross indecency.
He was one of at least 22 priests in the London diocese who were charged, convicted or sued for sex crimes against children.
In an unprecedented move at the time, Glendinning would become one of three London clergymen kicked out of the priesthood after a series of highly-publicized sex abuse scandals.
Although the grand jury report shows Southdown warned the church of some priests — for example, assessing Hoehl as a pedophile before the priest was reassigned as an educational consultant and a hospital chaplain and later removed from active ministry amid 32 of his victims launching a lawsuit — Rob Talach sees Southdown as part of a diabolical strategy of the church to covertly shuffle predator priests to new locations where they ministered God’s word to unsuspecting parishioners.
Talach, a lawyer with Beckett Injury Lawyers of London, has spent 15 years representing hundreds of victims in civil suits, he estimates more than any lawyer in Canada.
He is aware of “a number” of incidents where the church placed priests like Glendinning in local York Region parishes such as Our Lady of Grace following their treatment at Southdown, before they were reassigned.
“He (an abusive priest) goes to Southdown, his term is almost up and they say ‘Let’s try him out in the neighbouring parish for a little bit to see if he’s cured,” he said.
“So, the question I guess for Holland Landing and that area is, is that continuing to go on? It’s like that parish becomes kind of like a halfway house for guys coming out of the psychological penitentiary. ‘Let’s see if he’s actually cured. Oh no, there was a problem with the altar boys, send him back.'”
Sending clergy to small parishes reduces the chances of widespread scandal if they reoffend, Talach said.
“I think it’s crazy. What is the difference between rural and urban folks? Are country kids less important? It’s outrageous,” he said.
Talach has handwritten letters Glendinning sent to one victim’s family speaking of his time in Southdown.
“I’ve got to tell you, it sounded pretty idyllic and vacation-like. ‘I took a walk on the trails yesterday and I saw a fox leap across in front of me.’ It sounded like just a retreat,” he said.
While Southdown provides treatment and counselling, Talach pointed out it’s not a secular centre but rather a Catholic facility he feels has been an ‘enabler” for the church.
“It might be a doctor (treating a priest) but it’s a Jesuit doctor or it might be a nurse or a social worker but it’s a nun,” he said.
“Their sole and their main loyalty is to the church, which means they’re not going to give objective medical opinions, they’re not going to make the decision that’s right pursuant to the Hippocratic Oath. They’re going to make the decision that’s right for the church. They’ve been a bit of a laundromat for these priests … It is a place to be secretive and launder these guys and go through the motions that we did something but really, it’s just a temporary pause before we put these priests back into parish work ... I’ve never seen a report from Southdown that says take a guy out of circulation. They are funded by the Catholic Church. You don’t bite the hand that feeds you.”
Talach believes the church often sent offending U.S. clergy to Southdown and Canadian priests to American treatment centres to reduce the chances of authorities such as the police being able to access medical records.
“The fact they (church officials) are manipulating the international border to protect documentation is another problem,” he said.
“Southdown may say ‘We don’t have of these guys in Canada to fill the place.’ I say quite contraire, my friend.”
Southdown declined an interview.
“Our role as a psychological treatment centre is to respond to mental health issues,” communications manager Katherine Rogalska would only say in an email.
“Kindly consult our website (southdown.on.ca) for a clear description of our mission and for any information about our programs and services to the extent that we can share due to confidentiality.”
Ongoing evidence of the church’s “coverup” of priests sexually abusing children infuriates Newmarket resident Jacques Soucie, a longtime active member of St. John Chrysostom Catholic Church who studied to enter the priesthood before becoming a parole officer and later a speech pathologist.
“It’s an incredible betrayal of what’s meant to be the spirit of Christianity, not just the Catholic Church, but of Christianity and pretty much all religion and of humanity, to love one another and to be guardians of the youth, he said.
“It was shameful. They wanted to protect their image and what they thought the proper image of the church was.”
Despite his long involvement with his local parish, Soucie knows little about Southdown, a low-profile facility nestled along a winding driveway barely visible from the road.
In the wake of the Pennsylvania grand jury report, Pope Francis referred to abuse by priests and the church’s ongoing coverup as a “crime.”
But Soucie feels the church’s response continues to be inadequate.
“I don’t feel confident that from what I’ve seen so far, particularly what I’ve seen from the Pope, that in fact the church is going to make significant changes to bring those that are guilty around the world to account, both from a legal point of view and from their position within the church.” he said.
Soucie was one of several parishioners who attended a special mass and meeting at St. John’s Chrysostom on Sept. 4 to discuss the issue.
He and others are questioning what congregations can do to force change within the church.
“People are upset. They’re very concerned. Their biggest concern, I think, if I read the direction of the meeting, is this is an abuse of the power and an abuse of the ministry of the church,” he said.
“They want it to stop. They want the coverups to stop. They want transparency. They want to know when these things happen and they want to be assured if someone is even suspected of abusing a minor, that the proper legal steps, which is to report them to the police or the Children’s Aid Society are taken.”
The Pennsylvania grand jury report, believed to be the most comprehensive investigation into predator priests in U.S. history, is bringing renewed attention around the world to abusive clergy and the church’s handling of the offences.
It details the sexual abuse of more than 1,000 children and teenagers by more than 300 priests in that state and the ensuing efforts by the church to keep the abuse secret.
“Some (victims) were manipulated with alcohol or pornography. Some were made to masturbate their assailants or were groped by them. Some were raped orally, some vaginally, some anally,” the report said.
“But all of them were brushed aside, in every part of the state, by church leaders who preferred to protect abusers and their institution above all.”
Seven of those priests, including Hoehl, were sent to Southdown.
York Regional Police did not lay charges against Hoehl or the other six priests from Pennsylvania — Michael G. Barletta, Michael Robert Freeman, Thomas C. Kelley, John P. Connor, William P. O’Malley III and Benedict J. Van der Putten — who were sent to Southdown, Const. Andy Pattenden said, adding Glendinning was not charged by York police either.
Victims would have to come forward for the police to consider charges, Pattenden said.
Tim Lennon, president of the board of directors of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), an independent, peer network of survivors of institutional sexual abuse, was molested by a priest when he was 13 years old and also raped by a priest.
Disturbing memories of his abuse as an adult led to depression, fear, anxiety and nightmares.
He is appalled that the church used treatment centres such as Southdown to coverup priests who sexually assaulted children.
“Instead of reporting predator priests to the police, they would send them to a place like Southdown,” he said in a phone interview from Tucson, Ariz.
“In one sense, the centres are like dumping grounds. In other words, they moved the abusers around like the priest who abused me. He had abused children at three previous parishes. Each time they moved him to another parish. They moved him to my parish, I got raped and abused. Cruel. He abused 10 other kids. He got caught and they moved him again.”
Lennon doesn’t know whether centres like Southdown have cured any clergy of their pattern of sexually abusing children.
“I don’t know the physical, psychological values of these institutes or these centres,” he said.
“Frankly, I don’t care. I just want them in jail, off the street and away from our children and minors and vulnerable adults. And the bishops who covered up for them, I want them thrown in jail too.”
Published on September 14, 2018