Church making progress in dealing with sexual abuse

But new cases continue to arise and systemic issues remain

Western Catholic Reporter

25 January 2010



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 chequebook 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.”

Despite the improvements, the child pornography charges Bishop Raymond Lahey and revelations of a sexual abuse settlement concerning the late Father Des McGrath, “keep reversing the sense of progress,” said Harris.

He said the revelations about McGrath were “almost worse than that of the Christian Brothers,” because he was “such a beloved figure” in Newfoundland.

The priest was found dead in his garage last summer, a day after he was to appear in court to answer sexual abuse charges. In December, it was revealed the St. George’s Diocese had paid a more than $200,000 settlement to a victim, though McGrath had denied guilt. McGrath had been a founder of the Fish Food and Allied Workers Union.

Harris described 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 last September.

His case is wending its way through the courts in Ottawa, where he was arrested.

Sister Nuala Kenny 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 St. John’s Archbishop Alphonsus Penney consulted when he launched in 1989 into priestly abuse in his diocese in the wake of Mount Cashel scandal.


Kenny 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.

The charges against Lahey have plunged Sister Kenny into 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 praised Mancini’s proactive approach because “for the average Catholic, this seems like this goes on and on.” But she is “disappointed” the 20-year old Winter Commission findings, along with the tools the CCCB developed for discussion after From Pain to Hope 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 recent child sexual abuse issues are 30 to 40 years old.

“The Church continues to look at this as if it was only about the sins and failings of individual men. The systemic reasons for why it has happened . . . are still in need of attention.”

But Kenny stressed the systemic issues are complex and nuanced and cannot be attributed to one cause.

The Winter Commission said a “combination of factors coincided to allow the abuse to occur,” she pointed out. The report examined these systemic factors under six headings: power, education, sexuality, the support of priests, the management in the diocese, and the tendency for the Church to want to avoid scandal, she said.

“If we address this well, it would help us to be a better Church not just a safer Church,” she said.


Alexandria-Cornwall Bishop Paul-Andre Durocher described “a sea change” both the Church’s awareness of the problem of sexual abuse and in her response, noting how the commissioner of the Cornwall Inquiry commended his diocese in December for how much it has improved over the past 10 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 – the Church’s internal legal code – to see how 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 has little detail on how to handle allegations of sexual abuse and how to make the response transparent, he said. “Those issues need to be addressed at the level of the universal Church.”


Durocher also said much work still needed to be done in finding healing for sexual abuse survivors. “What can growth in the spiritual life look like and how can we as a Church help that along? Those are issues we haven’t started to look at yet,” he said.

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 the rates of priestly abuse have declined.

“There’s a well-recognized phenomenon of delayed exposure,” Talach 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 Father Barry Glendinning and the London Diocese. Since then the firm’s caseload has grown. Talach has an active caseload of more than 100 sexual abuse victims, including 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,” he said. “The priests offending in the ’70s were working lone parishes in the country the same as priests are working now.”

Talach urged the setting up of a database, a central registry 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.

But Durocher 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 also like to see a study on the long-term effect of celibacy, suggesting some men might go into the priesthood because sexuality will be removed from their lives and they believe 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.

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.”

Kenny agreed. “We know that married men offend against children,” she said. There is no direct correlation between celibacy and child abuse.

“It is certain that some people who have, let’s say, difficulties in integrating their own sexuality might be interested or attracted to a celibate lifestyle, whether within the priesthood or outside the priesthood,” Durocher said.

He thinks better screening of candidates will prevent that.

But Father Tom Doyle, a canon lawyer and expert witness in hundreds of abuse cases, says 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. 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 are the most important – they are the most grievously harmed and the most marginalized.”

“The most important thing I do in my life is tried to provide important spiritual help for the victims,” he said. Men in the Church abused them and covered it up and the experience is like having their souls torn and having God taken away from them.

“(The bishops) should find out what the nature of the spiritual damage is,” Doyle said. “They don’t know; they never talk about it.”

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.”