Sex Abuse Scandal Tests Catholic's Faith

April 17, 2010

By: Sarah Sacheli, The Windsor Star

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The sun has been up less than an hour, and already the faithful are filing into Assumption Church's Rosary Chapel for morning prayers.

Women don veils of white lace on their heads, their rosaries at the ready. Inside, a collection of men and women -- mostly seniors -- are already assembled. As the 8 a.m. weekday mass nears, the number of congregants swells to more than 50 -- almost as many as some churches elsewhere can draw on a Sunday.

The members of Assumption, the oldest parish in Canada west of Montreal, are a dedicated flock. The sex abuse scandal enveloping the Roman Catholic Church worldwide has not shaken the foundations of their faith.

Assumption pastor Rev. Paul Walsh, in an interview sanctioned by the diocese first, said he hasn't felt the need to address parishioners on the issue in years, not since former Windsor priest Charles Sylvestre was convicted in 2006 of sexually assaulting 47 girls in a ritual of abuse that spanned four decades.

The soft-spoken priest with the ever-present smile is willing to talk, he says, but nobody is asking. Walsh says he himself feels betrayed by the perpetrators and has been disappointed at times with how the church has handled them. "I wish the church would be less concerned with its image and more concerned with the condition of the victims, what the victims are going through," he said.

"The appearance of defending our actions is very disconcerting."

Each passing week seems to bring new allegations of abuse, or coverups of past abuses. Ireland. Germany. Austria. The Netherlands. Italy. Norway. Some hit home.

Ex-Windsor priest John Duarte this month pleaded guilty to sexually abusing adolescent boys at the mission he founded in Haiti, trading food and other necessities of survival in the impoverished country for sexual favours.

This week, a group of men in the Mediterranean island of Malta, who in 2003 reported having been sexually abused by priests as minors, asked to speak directly with the Pope about their languishing court cases. One of the priests they accuse, Rev. Godwin Scerri, once served in Emeryville and the OPP have resurrected a 1993 investigation into sex abuse allegations against him here.

Until recent days, the controversy had implicated priests and the bishops who protected them. But in the holy week leading up to Easter, the scandal touched the Papacy for the first time. In allegations denied by the Vatican, it is said that Pope Benedict, while a cardinal tasked with handling abuse cases, shielded an American priest who abused 200 boys at a Wisconsin school for the deaf.

Cardinals called the allegations against their pontiff part of an anti-church conspiracy. One cardinal in the Holy City downplayed the controversy, calling it "petty gossip."

It's the seemingly endless denials and apparent circling of the wagons that recently drove an Essex County woman from the faith. Duarte's case had troubled her enough. Then came news that Nova Scotia Bishop Raymond Lahey had been arrested for having child pornography on his laptop computer. This was a man regarded as a champion of sexual abuse victims, apologizing for historical abuse in his diocese and setting up a $15-million compensation package without fighting allegations in court.

"We aren't talking about one or two rogue priests. This was a bishop," the woman said.

Even more disturbing to her were allegations that Lahey had been promoted despite allegations he had committed sex crimes.

"Organizations rot from the head."

She reflected on her many activities in the church. She and her card-carrying Knights of Columbus husband were on the decorating committee. Their children were altar servers. They were both eucharistic ministers, on the rotation of faithful lay people who would give communion at masses and to shut-ins.

It was that last responsibility in particular she felt hypocritical carrying out while struggling with a crisis of faith. The reception she got from church staff when she approached them about her inner conflict not only cemented her decision to resign as a eucharistic minister, it convinced her to leave the church altogether.

"They minimized it. At one point they said it's just that the media is out to get the Catholic Church.... To me it was part of that long tradition of covering things up."

She requested anonymity in telling of her experience, saying her decision was personal and she prefers not to face public scrutiny for it. Besides, she said, echoing the sentiments of other local Catholics who asked their names be withheld, "the Catholic church is very good at attacking people."

Someone who knows that all too well is MP Joe Comartin, who in 2005 was publicly taken to task by his church for his parliamentary support of same-sex marriage. In a letter from the bishop read aloud at Sunday mass in every Catholic church in his riding -- and beyond -- Comartin was banned from liturgical ministries within the church.

Comartin continues to be prohibited from addressing congregations on any topic. "But the auxiliary bishop did say I could continue to do fundraising," he said wryly in a telephone call from Ottawa this week.

Comartin and his wife were removed as marriage-preparation instructors and he's no longer allowed to do Bible readings at any masses, including the weddings or funerals of family friends. Even at his brother's funeral, Comartin had to deliver the eulogy before the mass began.

Despite the public humiliation the diocese tried to bring upon him, he still attends church regularly and considers himself a man of faith.

"For me, the church isn't about the bishops, the cardinals, the pope -- it's the laity. The church is the people."

Comartin admits it's been difficult to have the same devotion as allegations of abuse mount. But his catharsis on the issue came nearly 30 years ago when, as a lawyer, he represented victims of the sexually abusive Christian brothers who ran training schools in Uxbridge and Hawkesbury, Ont.

"From my own faith perspective, I dealt with it at that time."

Comartin, shaken to his core by the allegations, called then Auxilliary Bishop Frederick Henry and asked, "How could a person who had devoted his live to the faith, to Catholic theology, do this?"

Comartin said, then, and in the ensuing decades, he has never found a satisfactory answer.

But for retired Windsor police detective Frank Chauvin, who now dedicates his life to charitable works, the answer is simple.

"It's sick individuals," Chauvin said. "I have no use for these pedophiles."

Yet Chauvin is still fiercely Catholic, having been recently bestowed with the Benemerenti medal by Pope Benedict, the highest honour that can be conferred on a lay member of the church.

The medal sits on his mantel in his Riverside home, below the ornately framed certificate in Latin script that accompanied it. Chauvin cherishes the honour, yet turned down the Order of Canada because he refused to share the title with abortion advocate Dr. Henry Morgentaler.

Chauvin, who built an orphanage in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and rescues children there left to die in garbage heaps, said the church's history of child abuse disgusts him. But he would never leave.

"We have to stick together and we have to clean this mess up," he said. "Now is the time to stand up and be counted. We have to get rid of these dirty old men."

Mark Beneteau is the first to admit he has picked a strange time to reconnect with his faith.

Beneteau, 33, stopped going to church in his teens. Fatherhood drew him back.

"When our daughter was born, my wife and I had a lot of debate about what school system to enrol her in." When the couple decided their child would attend Catholic school, Beneteau vowed he'd take his little girl to church. He makes good on that promise every Sunday at Our Lady of Mount Carmel.

What has helped the Windsor dad deal with the sickening truth that some clergy prey on children is the openness of his parish priest.

"Our priest is actually addressing it. He's offering information.... He's asking people to pray for the victims. He acknowledges it."

Good Shepherd pastor Rev. Gary Goyeau said it's important for parish priests to address uncomfortable topics like sexual abuse.

"I think it's very important to us as pastors to speak to them about the hurt they may be feeling."

Goyeau has not only addressed the topic in his homilies, he has spoken to groups within his parish and with parishioners individually.

"The conversation is always present."

John Duarte served at his parish, and two others in the area. Goyeau is certain he has lost parishioners over Duarte's crimes, and those of clergy elsewhere.

"We're all wounded by the abuse, the community as a whole.... It affects me as a brother priest.... There are days when you feel like you're all being painted with the same brush."

While some parish priests are winning over their parishioners with their approach, others are turning them off.

One man said he attended Corpus Christi Church on Easter Sunday, looking to the pulpit for wisdom and guidance, to try to make some sense of the scandal in which the church is mired.

He found it ironic and somewhat scandalous that the pastor, in his homily, quoted Michael Jackson, a pop star whose allegations of pedophilia followed him to the grave.

The parishioner said it was the first time in his life he'd had to bite his tongue as he received communion to keep from saying something to the priest.

Corpus Christi priest Rev. Jim Roche explained himself Friday, saying he has quoted Jackson's Heal the World many times, calling on people to "make the world a better place." He said he has recited the lyrics several times in his homilies since being introduced to the song in the 1990s by a group of students preparing for the sacrament of confirmation.

"I like the message. I'm not proclaiming Michael Jackson's lifestyle. That has nothing to do with it."

Roche said he's tired of people taking potshots from the sidelines -- including the media he says is beating a dead horse when it comes to the issue of clergy sexual abuse.

"Where is forgiveness in this process? Is anybody talking about that?"

When the topic of his close friend John Duarte is raised, Roche paints the disgraced priest as a tragic figure who started out doing miraculous work, but "lost his way."

He said Duarte is not evil, but simply human.

"I don't think the church is in a desperate situation," Roche said. He bases that opinion on the fact that the pews were still overflowing at Easter and none of his parishioners come to him demanding accountability from the church.

Parish priests are a good barometer of the feelings of their church community, Roche insists.

But a former priest originally from Windsor said sometimes the opposite is true.

Parish priests enjoy a kind of "rock-star adulation" from their followers, and don't often hear much criticism. "Rock stars don't hear from the people who don't like their music."

Challenging the church hierarchy is the key to the church's survival.

"When you're faced with a problem, there's three things you have to do to address it. You have to name it. You have to claim it. And you have to tame it.... So far, it's been very difficult for the church to name it."

Marcia Spratt encountered the pitch of fervid denial first-hand when she brought allegations forward about Duarte.

Spratt was on the board of directors of Hearts Together For Haiti, the charity Duarte founded, when allegations of his abuse first emerged.

Spratt and her husband Ken were vilified by Duarte's devoted followers for bringing their concerns to the police. Even now, after Duarte has admitted his crimes in court, Spratt knows Duarte's supporters have forgiven him, but they haven't forgiven her.

But Spratt's faith in the church was buoyed when she and her husband, who adored the young, charismatic clergyman, consulted five priests about what to do. "They all told us to go to the police -- every single one of them, no hesitation."

Spratt said she knows two people who left the church over Duarte's transgressions. "I can understand it. I mean I was conflicted when it first happened. My whole faith system was pulled out from under my feet."

But she found her way back into the comfortable cloak of her faith.

"I know this abuse is not God's hand at all. I am convinced this is not what God wants."


THURSDAY: Ontario Provincial Police say they have reopened the case against Rev. Godwin Scerri, a former Emeryville priest charged in 1993 with sex crimes. Scerri is in Malta, where he faces similar charges.

APRIL 2010: Former Windsor priest John Duarte is sentenced to 18 months in prison for sexually abusing adolescent boys at a mission he founded in Haiti.

MARCH 2010: Rev. Piotr (Peter) Sanczenko of Windsor is charged with two counts of indecent assault after two men told police they were molested by the priest 40 years ago, when they were 12.

MAY 2009: A victim of former Windsor priest Charles Sylvestre is awarded $1.745 million, the largest settlement for an individual sexual abuse case in Canada. Sylvestre died in January 2007 while serving a 2006 sentence for sexual assault after 47 women came forward with allegations of sexual abuse.

JANUARY 2008: The late Rev. Lawrence Paquette is named in a lawsuit against the London diocese by a man who claimed the St. Clair Beach priest repeatedly sexually assaulted him when he was a boy.

NOVEMBER 2006: Former Windsor priests Rev. Barry Glendinning and Rev. William Ring are named in a lawsuit by men and women who said they were abused by the pair, who lived across the hall from each other in a seminary.

AUGUST 2004: A male victim of former Windsor priest Rev. Barry Glendinning is awarded an out-of-court settlement for close to $500,000 for abuse in the early 1970s.

FEBRUARY 2004: A Windsor man claims he was sexually abused as an adolescent by Rev. Cameron MacLean.

AUGUST 1996: Rev. Gary Emile Roy, formerly of St. John de Brebeuf Roman Catholic Church in Kingsville, is charged with two counts of indecent assault against two teenage boys in the Sarnia area.

JANUARY 1994: Former Windsor priest Rev. Michael Francis White is placed on probation for sexually assaulting a troubled girl who went to him for sex assault counselling in Petrolia.

SEPTEMBER 1993: A retired Belle River priest, Rev. Leo Charron, 76, pleads guilty to indecent assault and gross indecency against a boy who was 12 when the abuse began. Charron was pastor of St. Jerome's Church in Windsor.

OCTOBER 1986: Defrocked priest Gerard John Vesnaugh is found guilty of sexual assault and perjury and is sentenced to three years in prison.

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