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The Church’s Errant Shepherds

Op-Ed Columnist


The Church’s Errant Shepherds


BOSTON, Philadelphia, Los Angeles. The archdioceses change but the overarching story line doesn’t, and last week Milwaukee had a turn in the spotlight, with the release of roughly 6,000 pages of records detailing decades of child sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests there, a sweeping, searing encyclopedia of crime and insufficient punishment.

But the words I keep marveling at aren’t from that wretched trove. They’re from an open letter that Jerome Listecki, the archbishop of Milwaukee, wrote to Catholics just before the documents came out.

“Prepare to be shocked,” he said.

What a quaint warning, and what a clueless one.

Quaint because at this grim point in 2013, a quarter-century since child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church first captured serious public attention, few if any Catholics are still surprised by a priest’s predations.

Clueless because Listecki was referring to the rapes and molestations themselves, not to what has ultimately eroded many Catholics’ faith and what continues to be even more galling than the evil that a man — any man, including one in a cassock or collar — can do. I mean the evil that an entire institution can do, though it supposedly dedicates itself to good.

I mean the way that a religious organization can behave almost precisely as a corporation does, with fudged words, twisted logic and a transcendent instinct for self-protection that frequently trump the principled handling of a specific grievance or a particular victim.

The Milwaukee documents underscore this, especially in the person of Cardinal Timothy Dolan, now the archbishop of New York, previously the archbishop of Milwaukee from 2002 to 2009 and thus one of the characters in the story that the documents tell. Last week’s headlines rightly focused on his part, because he typifies the slippery ways of too many Catholic leaders.

The documents show that in 2007, as the Milwaukee archdiocese grappled with sex-abuse lawsuits and seemingly pondered bankruptcy, Dolan sought and got permission from the Vatican to transfer $57 million into a trust for Catholic cemetery maintenance, where it might be better protected, as he wrote, “from any legal claim and liability.”

Several church officials have said that the money had been previously flagged for cemetery care, and that Dolan was merely formalizing that.

But even if that’s so, his letter contradicts his strenuous insistence before its emergence that he never sought to shield church funds. He did precisely that, no matter the nuances of the motivation.

He’s expert at drafting and dwelling in gray areas. Back in Milwaukee he selectively released the names of sexually abusive priests in the archdiocese, declining to identify those affiliated with, and answerable to, particular religious orders — Jesuits, say, or Franciscans. He said that he was bound by canon law to take that exact approach.

But bishops elsewhere took a different one, identifying priests from orders, and in a 2010 article on Dolan in The Times, Serge F. Kovaleski wrote that a half-dozen experts on canon law said that it did not specifically address the situation that Dolan claimed it did.

Dolan has quibbled disingenuously over whether the $20,000 given to each abusive priest in Milwaukee who agreed to be defrocked can be characterized as a payoff, and he has blasted the main national group representing victims of priests as having “no credibility whatsoever.” Some of the group’s members have surely engaged in crude, provocative tactics, but let’s have a reality check: the group exists because of widespread crimes and a persistent cover-up in the church, because child after child was raped and priest after priest evaded accountability. I’m not sure there’s any ceiling on the patience that Dolan and other church leaders should be expected to muster, especially because they hold themselves up as models and messengers of love, charity and integrity.

That’s the thing. That’s what church leaders and church defenders who routinely question the amount of attention lavished on the church’s child sexual abuse crisis still don’t fully get.

Yes, as they point out, there are molesters in all walks of life. Yes, we can’t say with certainty that the priesthood harbors a disproportionate number of them.

But over the last few decades we’ve watched an organization that claims a special moral authority in the world pursue many of the same legal and public-relations strategies — shuttling around money, looking for loopholes, tarring accusers, massaging the truth — that are employed by organizations devoted to nothing more than the bottom line.

In San Diego, diocesan leaders who filed for bankruptcy were rebuked by a judge for misrepresenting the local church’s financial situation to parishioners being asked to help pay for sex-abuse settlements.

In St. Louis church leaders claimed not to be liable for an abusive priest because while he had gotten to know a victim on church property, the abuse itself happened elsewhere.

In Kansas City, Mo., Rebecca Randles, a lawyer who has represented abuse victims, says that the church floods the courtroom with attorneys who in turn drown her in paperwork. In one case, she recently told me, “the motion-to-dismiss pile is higher than my head — I’m 5-foot-4.”

Also in Kansas City, Bishop Robert Finn still inhabits his post as the head of the diocese despite his conviction last September for failing to report a priest suspected of child sexual abuse to the police. This is how the church is in fact unlike a corporation. It coddles its own at the expense of its image.

As for Dolan, he is by many accounts and appearances one of the good guys, or at least one of the better ones. He has often demonstrated a necessary vigor in ridding the priesthood of abusers. He has given many victims a voice.

But look at the language in this 2005 letter he wrote to the Vatican, which was among the documents released last week. Arguing for the speedier dismissal of an abusive priest, he noted, in cool legalese, “The liability for the archdiocese is great as is the potential for scandal if it appears that no definitive action has been taken.”

His attention to appearances, his focus on liability: he could be steering an oil company through a spill, a pharmaceutical giant through a drug recall.

As for “the potential for scandal,” that’s as poignantly optimistic a line as Listecki’s assumption that the newly released Milwaukee documents would shock Catholics. By 2005 the scandal that Dolan mentions wasn’t looming but already full blown, and by last week the only shocker left was that some Catholic leaders don’t grasp its greatest component: their evasions and machinations.

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Bathurst diocese defends sex abuse conciliation in ad

Bathurst diocese defends sex abuse conciliation in ad

CBC News

Posted: Aug 24, 2012   5:20 PM AT

Last Updated:  Aug 24, 2012   6:35 PM AT

From the link:

The Catholic Diocese of Bathurst has taken out a half-page newspaper ad, defending itself against criticism over a conciliation process offered to 80 sexual abuse victims.

An Ontario lawyer and some of the victims, abused by clerics between the 1950s and 1980s, have argued there wasn’t enough transparency in the process, but in the newspaper statement, the diocese maintains it did everything right.

It hired retired Supreme Court of Canada justice Michel Bastarache a couple of years ago to oversee the process, which included compensation and apologies.

“Eighty out of 86 victims of sexual abuse by Levi Noel, and other clerics of the Bathurst Diocese, participated in the process and accepted awards made, representing a 93 per cent success rate, one of the highest ever achieved in such a process,” the statement, signed by Most Rev. Valery Vienneau, the bishop-administrator of Bathurst states.

“The Ontario lawyer who now publicly criticizes the process and the diocesan effort represented a number of people who successfully participated in that process and who, with his counsel, accepted awards,” Vienneau states.

Some of the victims are in the process of launching a lawsuit.

Nothing to hide

“They suggest that their lawsuit is about seeing that further details come to light, intimating that they believe the diocese is hiding something or has denied its failures in acknowledging mishandling of Noel and others. This is simply incorrect,” states Vienneau.

“When I initiated the reconciliation process, I had learned the extent of Noel’s abusive actions. I publicly acknowledged the failures of my deceased predecessor bishops to recognize and curb his abuse. It led me to extend the process to others known and unknown in an effort to be fair to all victims.”

Levi Noel, who worked on the Acadian Peninsula for 30 years, was sentenced in 2010 to eight years in prison after pleading guilty to 22 sex-related offences.

The victims were boys between the ages of eight and 16 at the time of the abuse, the court heard.

“We’ve done what we could, we do believe, as far as, you know, having a helping hand for the victims, offering them the counselling and compensation with the process that we do have,” the diocese’s vicar general, Father Wesley Wade told CBC News on Friday.

“Our concern was for the victims. We did what we could. And also to respect our diocese financially. So I think that process has helped us tremendously,” he said.

“It’s a very painful experience of course. And most of these cases were many years ago. But we have to take our responsibility — both for the victims to respect them, compensation, financially-speaking, and counselling,” Wade said.

“But also we’ve got a process, a protocol, to avoid these situations in the future as much as we can,” he said.

Similar process in Moncton

The Archdiocese of Moncton also hired Bastarache earlier this summer to oversee a conciliation process for people who were sexually abused by former priest Camille Léger in Cap-Pelé.

Ontario lawyer Robert Talach urged victims to choose litigation over church-sponsored conciliation, arguing confidential payments only allow the diocese to keep the abuse shrouded in secrecy.

Several people in the small, southeastern New Brunswick village came forward earlier this year to talk about being abused by Léger.

The priest died in 1990 and was never convicted of any crimes.

Archbishop André Richard apologized in March to anyone who was abused by Léger.

2 Moncton priests removed amidst sex abuse allegations

2 Moncton priests removed amidst sex abuse allegations

Ontario lawyer criticizes archdiocese over timing of announcement

CBC News

Posted: Jan  3, 2013   5:56 AM AT

Last Updated:  Jan  3, 2013   9:31 AM AT

From the link:

The Archdiocese of Moncton is facing criticism by an Ontario lawyer for its recent announcement of two priests being removed from ministry based on allegations of sexual abuse of children.

The archdiocese informed parishioners during mass last weekend that Father Yvon Arsenault, who was removed in July, and Father Irois Després, who retired in 1992, have been removed “from any ministry whatsoever following allegations of serious sexual abuse on minors.”

Retired Supreme Court of Canada justice Michel Bastarache — who was hired by the archdiocese in June to handle a conciliation process for the victims of another priest in Cap-Pelé — brought the latest allegations to the archdiocese’s attention, according to a Dec. 30 statement posted on its website.

None of the allegations have been proven in court.

Robert Talach, a personal injury lawyer, says he is “concerned” about the timing of the announcement because he understands the archdiocese was aware of allegations against at least one of the priests for decades.

Talach says one of Arsenault’s alleged victims told him he “had discussions with the archdiocese as early as 1998” about the allegations.

It’s not surprising, said Talach, who is representing about 14 alleged victims of abuse in Moncton and another 19 alleged victims in Bathurst.

In May, Normand Brun told CBC News he took his complaint about being abused by the late Léger to the Catholic church in 1997 and received financial compensation.

Brun, who now lives in Vancouver, was unable to discuss how much money he received due to legal reasons, but said the abuse started when he was nine years old and continued for four years.

Talach questions timing

Talach also noted that the archdiocese removed Arsenault from church duties on July 4.

“Someone has to ask them, you know — if you had enough evidence to remove him in July, why didn’t you go public in July?”

Archdiocese officials have declined to comment, but in a statement read aloud at all diocesan churches said Archbishop Valéry Vienneau asks for “forgiveness from the victims and their families.”

Arsenault, 70, of Moncton, and Després, 82, who lives in a seniors home in Shediac, could not be reached on Wednesday for comment.

“Let’s remember, we’re talking about an institution that treats itself as the highest moral authority in the land,” said Talach.

“One would hope that such an institution would immediately involve the secular authorities — the police — when they find out one of their employees has multiple allegations of sexual abuse, not simply remove him with pay and pension.”

Talach said he believes the archdiocese chose to announce the removal of Arsenault and Després now because “it was likely going to come out elsewhere.”

At least one of the complainants has already gone to the police, he said.

Talach is urging any other possible victims to do the same.

“I am concerned … that there’s a message going out now to victims of these two living priests to come on down to the archdiocese and we’ll start up a compensation package. That’s absolutely wrong at this stage,” he said.

“Nobody should be doing deals right now, there shouldn’t be any talk of money. It should be simply going to the police and the archdiocese should be offering its fullest co-operation to the police on this,” Talach said.

Arsenault served in churches in southeastern New Brunswick for 44 years, including three in the Moncton area.

Després, originally from Cocagne, served in southeastern New Brunswick churches for 38 years.

Conciliation process continues

The archdiocese’s compensation process is expected to wrap up at the end of the month.

“We fully support the [conciliation] process instigated by Mr. Michel Bastarache for the victims and we pledge to be vigilant to ensure that anyone working in the church fully complies with the policies in place to prevent abuse of any kind,” Archbishop Valéry Vienneau said in a statement.

Talach previously urged victims of the former Cap-Pelé priest Camille Léger to avoid the financial compensation being offered by the archdiocese.

He argued confidential payouts would only allow the diocese to keep the abuse shrouded in secrecy and said victims should choose litigation instead of the church-sponsored conciliation process.

Léger died in 1990 and was never convicted of any crimes, but several people in the small, southeastern New Brunswick village came forward last March, alleging they were abused by him as children between 1957 and 1980.

Within a week of the stories of abuse becoming public, then-archbishop André Richard apologized to anyone who was abused by Léger.

Village council also voted to remove Léger’s name from the local arena.

Bastarache told CBC News the conciliation process would allow victims to remain anonymous because it was outside of the usual legal system.

It would also see more money go directly to the victims, he said, estimating compensation of between $15,000 and $300,000 for each victim.

Bastarache also handled a church-related sex abuse file in the Acadian peninsula. The Diocese of Bathurst hired him in 2010 after two former priests were charged with sex-related offences.

More than 90 victims came forward and close to 80 came to settlement, Bastarache had said.


Church abuse report delayed by more allegations

Church abuse report delayed by more allegations

Retired Supreme Court Justice Michel Bastarache says process should end in April

CBC News

Posted: Mar  7, 2013   7:50 AM AT

Last Updated:  Mar  7, 2013   9:36 AM AT

From the link:

An investigation by retired Supreme Court of Canada Justice Michel Bastarache into sexual abuse has been delayed for the third time as more people have come forward with new allegations.

The process began last spring when several people in the southeastern village of Cap-Pelé came forward alleging abuse against Father Camille Léger, who has been dead for 23 years.

Those claims forced the church to address other allegations of sexual abuse by hiring Bastarache to lead the independent investigation.

The reconciliation and compensation process was expanded after accusations were made against other two priests, Father Yvon Arsenault and Father Irois Despres.

The process was supposed to wrap up last week when Bastarache gave out compensation cheques.

But he said within the last two weeks many more people have come forward with accusations of abuse.

Bastarache informed the diocese of “serious allegations of sexual abuse” by the two priests.

Arsenault and Despres were both removed from ministry. While they remain priests they are not allowed to perform any church-related duties.

Despres retired in 1992 and is 82 years old and lives in a seniors’ home in Shediac. He served in churches in southeastern New Brunswick for 38 years.

Arsenault, 70, was the priest of two churches in Moncton and one in Irishtown, until he was removed last July.

CBC News has contacted the parish but no was able to say where Arsenault is now.

The priests are not facing any criminal charges.

Bastarache said the compensation process should be completed by the end of April.

Aside from giving victims money, there remain questions around how much responsibility the Archdiocese of Moncton still needs to take when it comes to past allegations of sexual abuse.

Bastarache also handled a church-related sex abuse file on the Acadian peninsula in 2010. The Diocese of Bathurst hired him after two former priests were charged with sex-related offences.

Bastarache has told CBC News the conciliation process allows victims to remain anonymous because it is outside of the usual legal system.

The retired justice has said this process allows more money to go directly to the victims, estimating compensation of between $15,000 and $300,000 for each victim.

More alleged victims delay report on sex abuse by priests in New Brunswick

More alleged victims delay report on sex abuse by priests in New Brunswick

By: The Canadian Press

From the link:

MONCTON, N.B. – A former judge says his final report on sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests in the Moncton, N.B., area will be delayed until at least March because more alleged victims have come forward.

Michel Bastarache was hired last year by the archdiocese of Moncton to conduct a reconciliation and compensation process for alleged victims of sexual abuse involving a former priest from Cap-Pele.

The confidential process has since been expanded to hear complaints about any priests from the diocese.

Bastarache said he has already approved payments to about 50 people, ranging from $15,000 to $300,000 each.

“All of those that I interviewed have accepted my offer and I’m continuing to make the payments to those people,” Bastarache said Monday in an interview from his office in Ottawa.

The allegations that have been made have not been proven in a court.

The former Supreme Court of Canada justice says about 10 more people have decided to participate in the process including some people who had previously opted to take legal action.

“The archbishop is very much in favour of that,” Bastarache said. “He doesn’t want to close the door to anyone because they are late in the process.”

He said the process to determine compensation looks at many factors to determine the impact on the lives of the alleged victims.

“How old the victim was, how many times it happened, what were the acts of aggression, and then during the interviews I have access to medical files, psychological files, things like that,” he said.

In December, the Moncton diocese announced it had removed two priests from any ministry work following allegations of sexual abuse of children.

Bastarache informed the archdiocese of the accusations after hearing them during his reconciliation and compensation process.