Prosecutor remained on case despite conflict


Cornwall Standard Freeholder

13 January 2009


Time constraints kept a former senior Crown attorney from asking the lawyer prosecuting sex abuse allegations against a local priest to immediately step down over a conflict of interest, the Cornwall Public Inquiry heard yesterday.

Peter Griffiths testified that “time was ticking” during the 1997 preliminary hearing into charges that Rev. Charles MacDonald had assaulted three men decades earlier — and that was why he kept Robert Pelletier in charge of the retired priest’s prosecution.

“When that was completed, he would no longer be involved,” Griffiths said.

“That was my recollection.”

From 1993 until 1998, Griffiths — now the associate chief justice for the Ontario Court of Justice — was the regional director of Crown attorneys in eastern Ontario.

Allegations involving MacDonald, a former priest at St. Columban’s Church in Cornwall, had first come to the attention of city police in 1992.

Four years later, MacDonald was charged by the Ontario Provincial Police with seven counts of indecent assault.

In April 1997, Pelletier wrote a letter to Griffiths that outlined some of his concerns with remaining in charge of the case.

The Ontario Provincial Police had, by that time, received a collection of documents from former Cornwall cop Perry Dunlop which alleged there had been a wide-ranging conspiracy to cover up historical sexual abuse allegations. Among those named in the documents was Murray MacDonald, the city’s Crown attorney and a friend of Pelletier’s.

“He (Pelletier) wasn’t comfortable doing it (the preliminary hearing),” Griffiths told lead commission counsel Peter Engelmann. “And I respected that.”

Still, there was no discussion in April 1997 about transferring the case to another prosecutor, Griffiths added.

It would be more than two years until Pelletier — who is scheduled to testify at the inquiry later this month — stepped aside. He was replaced by Shelley Hallett, a Toronto area prosecutor.

Charles MacDonald was never convicted of sexually abusing children. In 2002, a judge stayed all the charges against him after ruling it had taken too long for the case to come to trial.

One of Charles MacDonald’s alleged victims, John MacDonald, told the inquiry in 2007 he felt many of the issues around the priest’s voyage through the justice system — including the failure to remove Pelletier in 1997 — were “borderline criminal.”

Griffiths was also asked yesterday about an earlier exchange of letters he’d had with John MacDonald, who was seeking answers after a Cornwall lawyer had been granted an absolute discharge in 1995 after pleading guilty to obstructing justice.

The lawyer, Malcolm MacDonald, had drawn up a settlement that paid $32,000 to one of Charles MacDonald’s alleged victims. The deal included an illegal clause preventing the former altar boy from pursuing criminal charges against the priest.

In his first letter to John MacDonald, Griffiths wrote that the discharge was “commensurate with other similar cases that have been decided in courts in other provinces.”

When John MacDonald wrote back, asking for the specific cases, Griffiths ignored him.

He took responsibility for that oversight yesterday.

“If I had it to do again, I would have answered him — if only to say ‘I’m sorry, I can’t help you any further,'” said Griffiths. “It was not appropriate not to answer the second letter.”

At the end of his testimony, Griffiths praised the victims who’d testified at the long-running inquiry, and offered a blanket apology for the pain they’d suffered.

“What many of these people have been through — not only at the initial stages of abuse when they were children and young adults, but through the last 10 years of living this over and over again in the press — must be extraordinarily difficult,” said Griffiths. “And I deeply regret that.”

The inquiry is exploring how a variety of institutions, including the province’s criminal justice system, handled allegations of historical sexual abuse.

Testimony resumes today at 9:30 a. m. – – –

Peter Griffiths

“He (Pelletier) wasn’t comfortable doing it (the preliminary hearing) . . . And I respected that.”


Article ID# 1384649