Bishop stepping down

Cornwall Standard Freeholder

26 April 02

Bishop stepping down
COFFEE BREAK

Claude McIntosh

Bishop Eugene LaRocque‘s tenure as the top Catholic leader in the Alexandria-Cornwall Diocese will come to a quiet end Saturday when the Vatican will announce his anticipated retirement. A source inside the diocese tells Coffee Break the bishop’s retirement will kick in immediately and that a successor has been selected.

Speculation is Most Rev. Paul-Andre Durocher, auxiliary bishop of Sault Ste. Marie, will be the Vatican’s choice to replace the 75-year-old LaRocque, who has been bishop of the Alexandria-Cornwall Diocese since 1974. A committee of local priests will meet on the weekend to name an administrator from their ranks who will serve until the new bishop is installed in a few weeks.

If Durocher is the successor, Roman Catholics in the diocese are getting an energetic, fluently bilingual 47-year-old bishop who enjoys the opera. “He’s a very personable person who has been groomed to become a bishop,” said a source.

The new bishop will have a big pair of shoes to fill, but only in the literal sense. LaRocque, not generally regarded as a warm, amiable individual, has not been an overly popular bishop. A gifted preacher with a strong, powerful voice, the towering LaRocque did not possess people skills as one of his strengths.

To say he was from the old school would be an understatement. His reign comes to an end just as one of his former priests, Rev. Charles MacDonald, goes to trial on numerous sexual assault charges.

There is speculation that LaRocque will be called to testify at the trial. If so, no doubt the timing of the Vatican’s announcement will be tied by his detractors to the start of the trial on Monday. MacDonald is alleged to have committed the crimes while serving as a parish priest in the diocese.

The allegations kick started the Project Truth investigation in which other priests were charged with sexual assault while serving in the diocese. LaRocque came under attack for a dubious decision to pay the first victim –– identified as D.S. –– $32,000 in exchange for signing an agreement not to proceed with criminal charges.

Later, the bishop offered a weak-kneed excuse that he made the 1993 payment to the former altar boy on the advice of the church lawyer. However, the final decision was his. It was advice he could have rejected.

Instead of putting out the fire, the payment –– referred to by many as hush money –– fueled the fire. The obvious question was that if there was nothing to hide why did the bishop pay the money, which left Cornwall Community Police Service investigators without a co-operative complainant?

At the time, police were not aware of the payment. When police chief Claude Shaver found out about the deal, he was so incensed that he filed a complaint with the Vatican’s pro-nuncio in Ottawa. When the payment story broke, LaRocque tried to stickhandle around the issue but the proper course of action would have been to resign.

Refusing to fall on his own sword, he passed the buck to legal counsel. Having said that, a mild sympathetic chord can be struck for the beleaguered bishop who reigned over one of the most controversial periods in local church history.

He was the victim of some horrific rumours distributed by a loose canon with a Web site.

The rumours of his connection with an unfounded pedophile ring in the Cornwall area reached their ugly zenith last May when he had to publicly defend himself against the accusations which reached the Ontario Legislature.

His accusers claimed he was a member of the alleged ring in 1961, a time when he was living and working in London, Ont. Somebody could be off a year or two, but not 13 years. Standing before television cameras, a distraught LaRocque proclaimed his innocence.

For a man of his pomp and authority, it had to be a humiliating experience, which, of
course, delighted his enemies. This scribbler never believed the wild charges but any thought of rushing to the bishop’s defence was tempered by his contempt for the media over the years. One incident remains fresh.

Shortly after LaRocque came here, a young reporter lined him up to take his picture after an event at St. Columban’s Church. A request to have him turn slightly to his right and take a less rigid pose got a hostile response. “Just take your picture!” he snapped with all the warmth of an iceberg.