ANGER AND SHAME GRIP THE ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH IN SCANDALS THAT INVOLVE PRIESTS AND SEX CRIMES
GREG W. TAYLORJuly171989
SINS OF THE FLESH
ANGER AND SHAME GRIP THE ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH IN SCANDALS THAT INVOLVE PRIESTS AND SEX CRIMES
There was an audible gasp as the young man at the microphone listed the ways in which children could be sexually abused. Addressing a panel of three men and two women seated on the raised wooden stage before him, Kent Anstey, a St. John’s, Nfld.-based spokesman for Victims of Violence, an organization that publicizes the plight of victims of a range of violent acts, used words such as “anal penetration” and “sodomy.” They were terms that few of the 250 people attending a church inquiry in the dim auditorium of St. John’s Holy Heart of Mary Catholic High School had ever wanted to hear. The list of indecent acts, however, was a blunt reminder of the shocking reality that the audience and the panel alike were trying to deal with: for years, Roman Catholic priests and other church workers in Newfoundland parishes had repeatedly abused dozens of children, most of them young boys, many of them orphans in the care of their attackers. Last week, many Newfoundlanders had come to the meeting organized by the Catholic Church—as they had to three others held elsewhere in the province last month—to find out why, and how, their trust had been betrayed by men to whom they had entrusted their souls.
Although it has been 18 months since police charged a 55-year-old priest, James Hickey, with 20 counts of gross indecency and sexual assault in the first of a series of sordid revelations of sexual abuse, many Newfoundlanders remain openly shocked, angry and profoundly hurt. The disclosures and subsequent police charges against 16 more individuals affiliated with the Catholic Church have spawned two inquiries—the one by the St. John’s Catholic diocese and another begun by the provincial justice department—which are likely to fuel those emotions for months to come. In fact,
religious leaders are not alone in being accused of sexual abuse: sexual assault reports of all types in Newfoundland more than doubled between 1987 and 1988, reaching 387 cases last year. Nor is the scandal limited to Newfoundland: at least six more cases of sexual abuse of children by Catholic churchmen have turned up elsewhere in Canada, and more than 20 in the United States.
Among many Catholics, the scandal has raised acutely disturbing questions. Some insist that the church itself—with its demanding celibate lifestyle for priests, and other strict traditions—has exacerbated the problem. Others say that the scandal directly challenges clerical authority. Acknowledged Kevin Mol-
loy, the church’s Newfoundland spokesman: “If the person you trust the most hurts you like this, how can you trust anyone?”
The scandal has topped local news programs in Newfoundland, as well as being the favorite topic of open-line radio shows and letters to the editor for months. It has even generated a stinging new brand of “Newfie priest” jokes. But, for the most part, the public responses have reflected a fierce anger against the church—and a profound sense of spiritual disillusionment. Declared Elsie Power, 52, a parishioner in St. Mary’s Bay, southwest of St. John’s: “I still go through the motions of going to church. But we certainly don’t trust our priests.”
Newfoundland, however, has not had to face the embarrassment alone. Similar charges of sexual aberration involving Catholic priests and children have surfaced recently in several other provinces:
• In May, Harold Mclntee, a 58-year-old Oblate priest from Williams Lake, B.C., pleaded guilty to 17 charges of sexually assaulting young boys at Catholic schools or parishes over a 30-year period.
• Last month, police in Scarborough, Ont., charged Angus Alexander McRae, a 62-yearold priest, with molesting a young teenage boy over 10 months in 1988 and 1989.
• Also last month, Edmonton’s Court of Queen’s Bench sentenced Antoine Tetu, a 55-year-old priest who assaulted five girls and a boy over the past seven of his 25
years as a cleric, to a two-year term at a psychiatric facility.
Still, the spreading scandal was not the first of its kind to hit the church in North America. Four years ago, Louisiana priest Gilbert Gauthe was convicted on 11 counts of sexually abusing children. That case, which sent shock waves throughout the Catholic leadership, was only the most publicized of 21 in Gauthe’s diocese. And Jason Berry, a New Orleansbased freelance writer who helped to break the story, says that there are telling similarities between the Louisiana and Newfoundland parishes. “They’re both based on land, faith and family,” Berry said.
Another element in the Louisiana cases also has echoes in Canada. Berry estimates that the Louisiana diocese where most of the assaults occurred has paid close to $18 million in compensation to victims and their families, while another 200 suits are unresolved. In Canada, Shane Earl has launched the first civil suit against several members of an order of Catholic brothers and the church itself. Earl alleges that he was beaten and sexually abused after he entered the Mount Cashel Orphanage in St.
John’s in 1973. Earl, now 23, wants $2 million for suffering that he says he endured at the 90year-old institution, which is run by a small religious order, the Christian Brothers, who practise celibacy but are not ordained priests. “I missed 15 years of my life,” Earl said. The church has refused to comment on the suit.
Certainly, it is not the numbers alone that caused such shock, but also the high regard in which the accused men had previously been held. Rev. Hickey, convicted last year of 20 counts of gross indecency and sexual assault committed mainly against altar boys over a 17year period, was one of St. John’s leading priests. Hickey, is now serving a five-year sentence in the penitentiary at Dorchester, N.B.
Last January, another priest, John Corrigan,
57, was sentenced to five years in prison for assaulting altar boys over a period of seven years. Since then, every month has produced at least one more ugly accusation levelled against a priest or lay Catholic, leaving Newfoundlanders reeling. Until a year ago, St. Mary’s Bay parishioner Power noted, “a priest couldn’t do anything wrong.” But the series of revelations of the last year, she acknowledged, “has shaken my faith.”
For many of the parishioners who have appeared before the church’s inquiry, the distrust attaches to senior clerics as well. A consistent focus of that distrust has been St. John’s Archbishop Alphonsus Penney, 64, whom some angry parishioners have accused of ignoring persistent rumors about child abuse during the 1970s. At public meetings, individuals and groups ranging from the Knights of Columbus to local parent-teacher associations have demanded that Penney step down as head of the province’s 205,000 Catholics—the province’s largest denomination. Last week, St. John’s parishioner David English told the panel that at every mass he puts a letter into his collection envelope demanding Penney’s resig-
nation. “When he comes to the altar, I walk out,” English declared. Penney, who appointed the members of the church’s inquiry, has remained resolutely silent about the growing furor. But in June, church spokesman Molloy said that the archbishop would have to be “guilty of some kind of criminal act” or some-
thing “against the canons of the church” to warrant his dismissal.
Both possibilities, in fact, are to be examined over the coming months as the two inquiries into the scandal proceed. While the archdiocese’s inquiry—headed by Anglican and former Newfoundland lieutenant-governor Gordon Winter—examines the church’s role in the affair, it is the provincial commission, headed by retired Ontario judge Samuel Hughes, that is to try to find out how the abuses could have continued so long without criminal prosecutions. Among those expected to testify before Hughes is Alex Hickman, chief justice of the Newfoundland Supreme Court who was minister of justice in Newfoundland in the early 1970s when several of the abuses occurred. Ironically, Hickman himself heads an inquiry in Nova Scotia into why Donald Marshall, a Micmac Indian, was jailed for 11 years for a murder he did not commit.
That inquiry has already raised questions with wide implications for Nova Scotia’s entire justice system, and some observers suggest that the same thing could happen in Newfoundland with the Hughes inquiry.
Winter’s investigations, too, could reveal problems
in the Catholic Church that extend far beyond the shores of Newfoundland. For many Catholics, one of the most disturbing implications is the suggestion that sexual abuse is not a new phenomenon for the church. As one woman told an earlier parish meeting last month: “I think it always went on. It was simply covered
up.” Indeed, Molloy said that several men have told him that they too had been abused years ago but they had been afraid to report it. “Imagine if the first person hadn’t come forward,” he observed last week.
But, notes journalist Berry, who is writing a book about sexuality and clerical celibacy, “the pattern in the past has been for the church to keep victims and their families at arm’s length by promising that the offending priest would be dealt with.” Instead of disciplining the offenders, however, Berry claims that the church in most cases merely moved them out of sight,
_ often to another parish where
they sometimes committed new offences. Said Berry: “It was only after charges were laid and lawsuits started that the church was forced to look at the problem.”
For the Catholic establishment, the latest scandals seem certain to deepen divisions over the future direction of the church. “It’s the Catholic Church’s Watergate,” said Berry. Certainly, the current crisis has shaken the foundations of several central elements of Catholic tradition. The most common charge is that the church’s insistence on celibacy for priests increases sexual frustration. Several speakers at-
tending the Winter inquiry have suggested that priests should be allowed to marry. Molloy, like most Catholic authorities, questions the link between celibacy and pedophilia. “Celibacy is not deviant, and these people are involved with deviant behavior,” he said. But in Edmonton, Archbishop Joseph MacNeil said that celibacy could be a factor in some cases. Commented MacNeil: “To ignore it would be stupid.”
IJ~ LUpIU. Questions have also been raised about the church's methods of recruit ing and screening candidates for the priesthood. MacNeil said that the pro cedures are being reviewed. "We want to make sure we have a healthy young man, that there aren't any ten dencies or attitudes a priest ought not to have." Already, MacNeil said, all new recruits to the priesthood under go psychological testing and back ground checks when they apply, and "about 50 per cent of them don't get past this level." - -
jE In the small, close-knit rural comg munities of Newfoundland where 5 many of the abuses occurred, there is g another dimension to the problem. “ Psychologist and sex abuse expert £ William Marshall, a professor at g Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., o who has visited the province several times to counsel church, police and citizens’ groups, said, “The issues have to do with the power of priests in smaller communities.” In Newfoundland, he observed, “the remoteness just adds to the authority.” In some places, he said “the priest is like God—there is absolutely nothing to keep the restraints in place.” Marshall, who has criticized how Archbishop Penney has handled the situation, urged the church to limit the authority granted to parish priests.
Still, whatever the effect of the scandal on the church, it is the victims of abuse who elicit the greatest sympathy. Indeed, Marshall predicts that, for the children, their families and for many communities, the emotional suffering will take years to fade. Many victims will lose their faith, he added, and they “may have difficulties with respect to their own sexuality—they will blame themselves.” In fact, one victim’s mother recalled: “My son used to sit at the kitchen table and cry and he would say, There is only one way out—to commit suicide.’ He was only 17.”
By the time last week’s meeting in St. John’s finally ended after three emotional hours, it was clear how much the scandals had already cost the church. Said one disillusioned mother, speaking of her three sons: “They won’t become altar boys. I won’t put my sons in jeopardy.” It was a fear few Newfoundlanders—or Catholics—had ever expected to associate with the sanctuaries of their faith.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.