Canadian Catholics are watching the unfolding of the clergy-abuse story south of the border and in Rome with a mixed sense of unease and déjà vu.
One decade ago, the Church in Canada occupied the quagmire in which the
Church in America is currently mired, after a nationally publicized sex-abuse scandal forced Canadian bishops to confront issues whose ramifications are still being felt today.
This fall, the Canadian bishops will revisit the report they produced ten years ago—and they'll try to ensure 1990s guidelines hold up in light of 21st-century realities. It's a cautionary tale for the American Church that, even with recommendations in place, keeping them relevant and effective is a never-ending task.
Canada's clergy-abuse scandal began in the 1980s at Newfoundland's Mount Cashel orphanage. Several priests and brothers at the orphanage were convicted of sexually abusing youths, which led to revelations of child sexual abuse across the country.
The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops at the time described the reactions of Canadians in words that will seem familiar to Americans today. People are “angry, ashamed, hurt and disillusioned,” says Archbishop Roger Ebacher, who chaired the bishops' ad hoc committee on child sexual abuse. “The offenders have done great damage to the victims and their families, to the Christian communities where the abuse occurred, to their fellow priests and brothers and to the whole Church.”
The commission published two reports, the main one TITLEd “From Pain to Hope,” which resolved to “break through the wall of silence” protecting abusers. Its 50 recommendations ranged from requiring immediate investigation and reporting of abuse claims, to mandating basic sex abuse protocols in every diocese.
For Msgr. Peter Schonenbach, general secretary of the CCCB, the decision to review the decade-old guidelines recognizes that “a lot of things have changed over 10 years.” High on the list is one the American Church is grappling with—especially now that the U.S. cardinals have met with the Pope on the matter: What to do with priests who have taken advantage of their flock through sexual abuse. It's one thing to establish protocols requiring transparency and reporting to authorities. It's another to determine what becomes of the offender after punishment and treatment.
“We really didn't discuss too much just what to do with priests or religious who have been accused, who perhaps have had some type of punishment,” says Msgr. Schonenbach.
That became apparent in January in the western Canadian diocese of Calgary. Parishioners at a suburban church were stunned to learn their newly assigned priest had a sexual-abuse background involving a 16-year-old altar boy in the 1980s. Although the priest was treated, he later re-established contact with the former altar boy and was found guilty of sexual assault. He was eventually given a fresh start in Calgary. Unfortunately, nobody informed parishioners about his past and, when someone in the congregation recognized the priest from Ontario, parishioners exploded. Calgary Bishop Frederick Henry removed the priest and publicly apologized for not advising parishioners about his background, explaining that he felt the priest no longer posed a risk.
The Calgary incident suggests that, good as guidelines are, there may remain gaps. No one keeps statistics on how many of Canada's 72 dioceses have implemented recommendations from the 1992 report, but “the vast majority” have protocols in place to handle sexual abuse allegations quickly and visibly, says Msgr. Schonenbach. “Every diocese has something in place,” he adds. “Every diocese, every bishop, subscribes to the idea that things have to be transparent, that we have to act quickly on things, and there should never be cover-up.”
Vancouver Archbishop Adam Exner, a member of the ad-hoc committee 10 years ago, said recently that the guidelines have been “very, very helpful in aiding dioceses to cope with reported cases more openly and more expeditiously.” He urged the American Church to develop protocols “suited to their own condition, so that we get away from this idea of simply moving one problem from one place to another without really handling it.”
On a practical level, the Canadian Church is up against demographic and geographic realities that could also prove challenging for American bishops.
There are immense differences between the Archdiocese of Toronto and tiny Whitehorse in the Yukon. “We have maybe 15 or so large, urban dioceses,” says Msgr. Schonenbach. “But the rest are kind of spread all over the place,” requiring different policy models.
One possibility is that the Canadian bishops could issue a decree instructing dioceses on how to respond to abuse allegations.
Once approved by Rome, it would have the force of law. It's probably high time for such a move, says Msgr. Schonenbach, to give people “a real sense that this is being taken seriously.”
Considering the amount of effort and time that has been expended on the task of drafting and implementing a national policy, there is bewilderment that the issue remains a long way from being vanquished, on either side of the border. “I think we can say quite frankly that we thought the whole thing was pretty well in shape,” Msgr. Schonenbach says. “I was really astounded to hear how so many dioceses in the U.S. were still operating more or less in a case-by-case vacuum.”
There's a general sense in Canada that there has been more time to heal and implement solutions here. “I do feel that the Canadian bishops really tried to put their house in order about 10 years ago,” says Msgr. Schonenbach.
Still, the Canadian Church also remains painfully aware that it is not immune from potential scandal. As Calgary Catholics recently discovered, a diocese is only as safe as its current policies are effective.
Paul Schratz, editor of the B.C.
Catholic, writes from Vancouver.
The reports “Breach of Trust, Breach of Faith” and “From Pain to Hope” can be ordered from the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. Call (613) 241-7538 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.