The arrest last fall of Bishop Raymond Lahey has refocused attention on sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. The Catholic Register examines the issue in this special report.
OTTAWA (CCN) — Investigative journalist Michael Harris has seen a “tremendous policy change” in the Catholic Church since he broke the story of sexual and physical abuse at the Mount Cashel orphanage in the late 1980s.
“There has been a true response to the real problem instead of musical parishes, private deals and checkbook dispensations,” said the author of Unholy Orders: Tragedy at Mount Cashel. “I have a good feeling that the next generation of Catholic priests will not be in this position.”
But child pornography charges laid last October against Bishop Raymond Lahey and revelations in December of a $200,000 settlement related to sexual-abuse allegations against Fr. Des McGrath, who was found dead in his garage last summer a day after he failed to appear in court, “keep reversing the sense of progress,” said Harris.
He believes the allegations against McGrath were “almost worse than those against the Christian Brothers” because he was “such a beloved figure.”
Harris described Bishop Lahey, too, as “a hero to the Church, who seemed to understand you shouldn’t put kids through endless legal hurdles.” Lahey had announced a $13-million abuse settlement in his Antigonish diocese only weeks before he was arrested and charged with possession and importation of child pornography. His case is wending its way through the courts in Ottawa.
Sister Nuala Kenny, Ethics and Health Policy Advisor for the Catholic Health Association of Canada, said the “hurt goes on” because the Church has never successfully addressed the systemic issues she and others identified in the 1990 Winter Commission Report.
The Halifax-based pediatrician was one of the experts consulted by St. John’s Archbishop Alphonsus Penney when he launched the 1989 inquiry into clerical abuse in his diocese following the Mount Cashel scandal. She also participated in the working group that drafted From Pain to Hope, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (CCCB) protocol for dealing with allegations of sexual abuse, published in 1992.
Kenny has been revisiting the Winter Commission findings because Halifax Archbishop Anthony Mancini wants to address the systemic issues Penney, and later, the CCCB “bravely” confronted two decades ago, she said. She praises Mancini’s proactive approach because “for the average Catholic, this seems like this goes on and on.” She is “disappointed” the Winter Commission findings, along with CCCB discussion tools, have not been more widely used in dioceses across the country.
“There have been improvements in the screening for seminary and reporting mechanisms in the dioceses,” she said, noting that most of the recent child sexual abuse issues are 30-40 years old. “The Church continues to look at this as if it were only about the sins and failings of individual men. The systemic reasons for why it has happened . . . are still in need of attention.”
Kenny stressed the systemic issues are complex and nuanced and cannot be attributed to one cause. The Winter Commission found that abuse resulted from a combination of factors, which were categorized under six headings: power, education, sexuality, the support of priests, the management in the diocese, and a church tendency to avoid scandal, she said.
“If we address this well, it would help us to be a better church but not just a safer church,” she said.
Alexandria-Cornwall Bishop Paul-Andre Durocher believes there has been “a sea change” in both the Church’s awareness of the problem of sexual abuse and in its response, noting how the commissioner of an inquiry in Cornwall commended his diocese in December for improvements in the past ten years. “What has happened in Cornwall is typical of what has happened across Canada,” the bishop said.
But Durocher sees room for improvement in Canon Law to build in greater accountability of bishops one to another and to their people.
“The Canadian bishops that I know are very committed to this, but Canon Law itself has not developed these structures of accountability and I think that’s another issue we need to study.”
Canon Law offers very little detail on how to handle allegations of sexual abuse and how to provide a transparent response, he said. “Those issues need to be addressed at the level of the Universal Church.”
Canon lawyer Father Frank Morrisey said victims have been the focus of the bishops’ concern since the CCCB published From Pain to Hope. “We are extremely fortunate that the bishops back then decided to act to resolutely,” said Morrisey. “From Pain to Hope made it clear that the child or vulnerable adult was the first priority.”
If there is proof that a priest abused a child he is dismissed from the ministry entirely, he said. There is “zero tolerance.” He, too, noted most cases of abuse are decades old.
But Robert Talach, an attorney with the London, Ont. firm LeDroit Beckett, said it is premature to assume rates of church abuse have declined. “There’s a well-recognized phenomenon of delayed exposure,” he said. “People are not going to confront this part of their past until their 30s, 40s or 50s.”
He has only had three clients in their 20s. “There’s sort of a natural time lag.”
In 2002, LeDroit Beckett represented the Swales brothers in their case against Fr. Glendinning and the London diocese. Since then the firm’s caseload has grown. Talach has a caseload of more than 100 sexual abuse victims, including some from the Maritimes and has consulted on cases in Western Canada.
“What base ingredients of the problem have changed since the 1950s?” Talach asked. “Priests are still celibate men whose structure and routine remain relatively the same. The priests offending in the 70s were working in lone parishes in the country, the same as priests are working now.”
Talach urged the creation of a central registry database accessible by the bishops so that the Canadian Church can track information about sexual abuse and provide diagnostic advice. “That registry is prevention,” he said.
Bishop Durocher, disputing the need for a database, said Canada is small enough for bishops to be aware. “We know that recent events of sexual abuse are down tremendously,” he said. “We don’t need a database to figure that out.” A similar registry in the United States cost $4-million.
Talach would like to see a study on the long-term effect of celibacy, suggesting some men might enter the priesthood to remove sexuality from their lives so they won’t have to deal with problematic attractions.
“Look at this great gig,” he said, “I can justify being a 45-year-old man who has never had relationship with an adult woman or man and it’s a great place where I can go and hide, with access to children,” he said.
But Durocher said celibacy and abuse should not be linked. “There is no research whatsoever to show that the prevalence of perpetrators is higher among celibates than among non-celibates in the general population,” the bishop said.
Kenny agreed. “We know that married men offend against children,” she said. “It’s not celibacy itself.” There is no direct correlation between celibacy and child abuse.”
Father Tom Doyle, a canon lawyer and expert witness in hundreds of abuse cases, believes mandatory celibacy needs to be examined. “It’s not simply having no sexual contact; it’s the whole environment of the Catholic world,” he said. “It’s created a subculture and a sub-society that is unique and quite frankly psychologically and emotionally toxic.”
Doyle described celibacy as “a kind of clerical dress” that sets the priest apart and makes people think they have a “mythical power.”
Kenny also sees power relationships as a problem. “We don’t have good, healthy ways to support our priests,” she said. “People who most need loving correction and support are the ones least likely to get it.”
She lamented how every good priest and bishop is tarred by the scandals caused by a few. No longer can a good priest or teacher give a child who has fallen down a hug, she said.
The Church needs an open discussion around “the healthy gift of human sexuality,” she said. The language around sexuality is either “at such a high level that people don’t recognize it as human,” she said, or there seems to be a “veil of secrecy” over it. The precipitant in priestly sexual abuse “was almost always alcohol,” she said, noting there are no more sexual abusers among Catholic priests than in any other profession. A “drunken daddy” or mother’s boyfriend are also more likely to abuse children, she added.
The tendency has been to minimize, to deny and to try to stonewall the issue, Doyle said. “Bishops need to stop resisting the efforts of victims to find justice and to treat them with respect.”
“The bishops need to seek out victims and reach out and listen to them,” he said. “These people (victims) are the most important — they are the most grievously harmed and the most marginalized. The most important thing I do in my life is try to provide important spiritual help for the victims,” he said.
Durocher said he was impressed with Doyle’s Cornwall Inquiry presentation on healing for victims. The bishop has met directly with abuse survivors in his diocese. “For both the survivor and the bishop these experiences are very powerful and important,” he said. “I think those encounters can be an important step in reconciliation and in healing.”