The parishioners streamed up the snow-dusted steps of the Basilica of St. John the Baptist, the mother church of Newfoundland’s 200,000 Roman Catholics, which sits on a prow of rock overlooking downtown St.
John’s. Many of them were senior citizens in their Sunday best, but there were also parents with children in tow—boys in hockey sweaters, girls in brightly colored snow jackets. The scene was inspirational, but the 10 a.m. hour-long mass inside the cavernous church—the first of three masses on Feb. 26, the third Sunday of Lent—was marked by sombre references to sin, wrongdoing and forgiveness. In his homily from the white marble pulpit, basilica associate pastor Rev. Wayne Dohey spoke of “the pain we are experiencing.” And he ended the service by thanking the corps of whiteclad altar boys “who have had a very rough time in the light of recent events.” Indeed, the events of the past year have brought both agony and turmoil to a church that has been a powerful influence in Newfoundland’s spiritual, cultural and political life since it was established on the island in 1784.
With the arrest of 55-year-old Rev.
Kevin Bennett of Flat Bay on 12 charges of gross indecency on Feb.
21, the number of Roman Catholic clerics charged since the beginning of 1988 with sexual offences involving boys rose to five. A saddened, puzzled and outraged community has reacted by writing a flood of letters to newspapers, calling open-line hosts and, at times, resorting to black humor. And some Newfoundlanders have also criticized the church’s muted response to the problem, saying that it has provided little information or comfort to victims and their families. Said Deborah Redfern of the St. John’s Women’s Centre, a women’s advocacy group:
“The fact is, people are upset by the way the church has dealt with this.”
Now, amid further allegations in the media of sexual wrongdoing on the
part of Roman Catholic clerics and a government decision to investigate allegations of child abuse at a Catholic orphanage, many Newfoundlanders clearly fear that the full dimensions of the problem have yet to be revealed.
Redfern, for one, is calling for a public inquiry into sexual abuse by priests. Former provincial fisheries minister Thomas Rideout, a frontrunner in the race to replace retiring Conservative Premier Brian Peckford, has also called for a task force to address “the fact that there is an epidemic, a cancer on the body politic of Newfoundland and Labrador.” And, last week, the Roman Catholic Church finally spoke out on the issue as well. Said Rev. Kevin Molloy, spokesman for the archdiocese: “I think the conditions certainly warrant an inquiry.” And he added that the investigation “should look into what the parameters of this problem are—just how big it is.”
That problem existed even before the current series of arrests. Between 1979 and the beginning of last year, nine Newfoundland clerics—four of them Roman Catholics—had been convicted of sexual offences. But the Roman Catholic Church was particularly shaken by the arrest in January, 1988, of one of its most popular figures in St. John’s, Rev. James Kiekje ey. The 55-year-old priest “ is now serving a five-year I term in the federal penitenu tiary at Dorchester, N.B., after having been convicted - on 20 counts of sexual assault and gross indecency committed over a 17-year period. As a result of his high profile as a cleric and community leader, Hickey had been called upon, among other things, to welcome visiting royalty. But in sentencing him last fall, Judge Reginald Redic said that altar boys had fallen prey to his “base sexual desires,” adding that “the only thing the boys have learned from you is that they shouldn’t have trusted you.”
Since then, another highly respected priest, Rev. John Corrigan, 57, has also been sentenced to five years in prison for offences stretching over a decade against young boys in two parishes. Last January, Rev. Edward Leo Sutton, 44, the pastor in charge of recruitment of priests for the St. John’s archdiocese, and Rev. James Francis Slattery, 51, a St. John’s parish priest, were each charged with one count of gross indecency. Their pleas will be heard in May. And, in February, came the charges against Bennett, who has since pleaded not guilty and has elected trial by judge and jury. No trial date has yet been set.
In addition, the provincial justice department has ordered the reopening of a 1975 investigation into alleged
sexual abuse at the St. John’s Mount Cashel Orphanage—run by the Christian Brothers, a small Roman Catholic religious order. At the same time, the CBC’s network current-affairs show The Journal recently broadcast allegations by a Newfoundland youth—whose name was withheld—that he had been sexually assaulted by several priests “partying” together. And Here and Now, a provincial CBC TV dinnerhour current-affairs show, carried an interview on Feb. 15 with a young man who claimed that in 1986 he had been assaulted by a priest in a car.
Some Newfoundlanders have reacted to the wave of charges, convictions and allegations with a kind of strained humor. According to Molloy, when the report of eight sexual assault charges against Rev. Harold Mclntee, a Roman Catholic priest in British Columbia, was heard on the radio in a local doughnut shop last week, the patrons broke out into laughter when one of them said, “Must be a Newfoundlander.” Said Molloy: “That is what people are saying now— ‘That’s the priests for you.’ ” On his daily twohour open-line radio show, host William Rowe spoke to one caller who complained that the sole topics of conversation in the province had become “sex, oil and fish.” And, last month, humorist Ray Guy wrote in his weekly column in the St. John’s Sunday Express that there may now be children who suspect “that the Easter Bunny, too, is coming up soon on a messy morals charge.”
But many Newfoundlanders, both Catholics and non-Catholics, are also asking hard and painful questions. “You have to wonder how long this has been going on,” said one 16-yearold boy, a student at Brother Rice Regional High School in St. John’s. “How could something go on for years without people knowing about it?” Added John A. Scott, a professor of philosophy at Memorial University and a scholar of church history: “The question on the tip of every tongue is ‘Why us? And why this?’ ”
So far, there are few answers to those questions—although theories abound. Some Newfoundlanders say that there must have been a ring of priests who aided each other in exploiting altar boys and other young parishioners. But, said Scott, “I am not content with the answer that it was simply a conspiracy of deviants. I think something is profoundly adrift at a spiritual level, at a cultural level.” Edward Coady, executive producer of Here and Now— who has been covering the ongoing story extensively—said that the long tradition of unquestioned authority in the church, combined with its strictures against priests indulging in sexual activity, may be part of the problem. Added Coady, himself a Catholic: “You can’t just say, ‘I am going to turn off that part of my life.’ ”
For his part, Molloy, the bluff and amiable pastor of Holy Rosary Parish in Portugal Cove near St. John’s, said that he doubted whether celibacy was at the heart of the problem. Interviewed last week in his green and white manse overlooking the dramatic rocky shoreline of Conception Bay, he added, “If that is true, then why are married clergy in-
volved?”—pointing out that non-Catholic clergy not subject to a code of celibacy have also been charged with sexual offences. Molloy, 55, said that after more than three decades working as a priest or teacher in the church, he has seen no signs of sexual abuse among his colleagues. But, he added, “It is a lonely life, especially here in Newfoundland where there is a lot of isolation.”
In the two thick registries of baptism for Molloy’s parish are the signatures of his predecessors. They date back more than 150 years and range from elaborate scrolls of quill pens to the scrawled name of the priest whom Molloy replaced—James Hickey—who served in Por-
tugal Cove between 1979 and 1986. Molloy said that the “tragic flaw” of Hickey and the other priests who have come before the courts has darkened the reputation of the entire priesthood. “Years ago, when a priest did something good we all shared in it,” Molloy said. “Now we all share in this. A lot of priests are telling me they no longer feel comfortable. People lose trust.”
But he also said that the church is beginning to address the problem. Among the steps being considered: a reassessment of the church’s recruitment program for priests, and programs to educate church members about sexual abuse. Said Molloy: “We can’t put Jim Hickey in jail on a Saturday and have a program lined up on Sunday morning.” And he added that the church will overcome its current trauma. Said Molloy: “We will survive.”
Newfoundland Archbishop Alphonsus Penney, meanwhile, has not commented on what may lie behind the wave of sexual abuse. In an open letter to his parishioners that in January was printed in The Monitor, the provincial church newspaper, Penney said that recent events had provided the church with a time of
spiritual testing. “In the midst of these devastating and shameful happenings, God is inviting us to launch out into the deep,” the archbishop wrote. “These events are challenges to leave the shallow waters and face the unknown, even when stormy and threatening, with trust in the Lord.”
But some parishioners have launched into waters of a different kind. On Feb. 26, members of St. Paul’s Parish in St. John’s east end organized an information seminar on sexual abuse. Congregation member Richard Callaghan, a provincial government communications officer, explained that the seminar was the culmination of discussions at parish meet-
ings. But although the seminar was advertised on television and in the parish bulletin, barely a dozen parents turned up for the intense twohour session with St. John’s sexual abuse counsellors Susan Macleod and Kelly Adams.
Macleod attributed the low attendance to the fact that many people have difficulty discussing sexual abuse. Still, she pointed out that those who did attend were well prepared with questions. As a result, the group may hold another session—on the pain suffered by victims of sexual abuse. And Macleod added that it is important for abused children to disclose details of assaults. For their part, some members of Newfoundland’s Catholic clergy clearly hope that if there have been other incidents they will be disclosed quickly. Last month, Penney told reporters, “I would much rather today have a hemorrhage in the church than this trickle of life’s blood ebbing away and making the church weaker and weaker.” Added Molloy: “It is good that those who are victimized are coming forward—we have to clean up this mess.”
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