Canada’s Catholic bishops have joined their American
counterparts in expressing heartbreak and sorrow over an unfolding clerical
“Over the past few weeks, a number of very serious accounts of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church have become public. Like you, I am devastated by these accounts of profound evil,” said Vancouver Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB.
A Grand Jury in Pennsylvania reported Aug. 14 that it had identified 1,000 abuse victims who suffered at the hands of 300 priests in Pennsylvania dioceses over 70 years. It also said many Church authorities chose to ignore or cover up the scandals to protect the priests or the Catholic Church’s image.
These cases “have shaken me and broken my heart,” said Archbishop Miller Aug. 17, in a statement forwarded to all parishes in the archdiocese. He decried the actions of the bishops and priests who failed to protect vulnerable minors, saying they failed in being shepherds and spiritual fathers.
“What father would come to know that his child had been abused and do nothing about it? … Would that they had acted like Jesus, who showed his anger towards those who defiled the temple!”
Canada’s Catholic bishops developed protocols long before their American counterparts because the clerical sexual abuse crisis hit Canada in the late 1980s with the revelations of abuse by Irish Catholic Brothers at Mt. Cashel Orphanage, followed by the Winter Commission set up by the St. John’s, Nfld., diocese in 1989 that identified systemic abuse and cover-up.
Canada’s experience with the clergy abuse scandal was well over a decade before the 2002 scandal in Boston that rocked the Catholic Church in the United States and led to the 2002 Dallas Charter the bishops adopted to prevent clerical sexual abuse of children.
In 2005, the province of Ontario launched the Cornwall Inquiry into sexual abuse in the Alexandria-Cornwall diocese and found systemic failures on the part of church leaders, police and social services in responding to complaints.
Across Canada, individual dioceses have faced litigation by individuals who have claimed sexual abuse by priests. Some dioceses, such as Antigonish, have been forced to sell church properties and faced bankruptcy due to sexual abuse litigation settlements. Antigonish’s historical $13-million dollar abuse class action settlement was announced by ex Bishop Raymond Lahey in 2009, only days before he was picked up at the Ottawa airport with child pornography on his computer. He was convicted and subsequently de-frocked by the Vatican.
Other Canadian bishops have also spoken out. In a joint statement released by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops Aug. 20, they said Catholics across Canada “are rightly shamed and saddened regarding the findings of the Pennsylvania Investigating Grand Jury.”
“We reiterate the profound sadness that we as bishops feel each time we learn about the harm caused as a result of abuse by Church leaders of any rank.”
The CCCB added Canadian bishops treat all abuse instances seriously, using national guidelines for the protections of minors that have been in place since 1992.
“We all have a sacred trust to protect those who are vulnerable, particularly children, and to stand up and speak when we witness that trust betrayed,” added the Catholic Bishops of Alberta and the Northwest Territories in an Aug. 17 letter.
“We cannot run or hide from instances of abuse and harm and we have no desire to do so. We confront these situations with the Gospel principles of truth, justice, repentance and healing.”
In the Alberta statement, the bishops said: “we renew our commitment to ensure that any clergy, employee, or lay volunteer who commits an offence against children or other vulnerable persons is promptly removed from ministry, that any offences are immediately reported to civil authorities, and that victims receive an apology, compassion and assistance in recovering from any harm they have suffered, including compensation when appropriate.”
Back in Vancouver, Archbishop Miller’s statement immediately received mixed, but mostly positive reaction.
“The best way to stand beside your people when they do evil is to call out their evil, rather than covering up for their evil. You have done this correctly. I bless you Archbishop Miller – let’s tear down the spirit of the great prostitute in our people, that is, the evil that remains to be purged from the Church,” wrote Jacob Hogge.
Another Facebook user, Lorna Demedeiros, wrote: “Thank you for speaking to this, Your Grace. I feel blessed and safe under your care, and grateful that you are our shepherd.”
Others were not so convinced. “Just more smoke and mirrors,” responded Coco Éclair.
Abuse survivor Leona Huggins, from Coquitlam, told the Vancouver Sun the archbishop's statement did not go far enough. “I would like to see the Church commit to a thorough examination of their reports, including their secret files to determine any errors or omissions in reporting,” she said. “I want them to name names.”
While the world was reeling from the news of the Grand Jury report, allegations also surfaced about Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, retired Archbishop of Washington, accused of making sexual advances toward seminarians.
“Learning about this high-profile case of abuse in the Church, along with similar situations in Australia, Chile and Honduras, causes me great distress,” wrote Archbishop Terrence Prendergast in an Aug. 19 column for the Ottawa Sun. “Many bishops, priests and lay Catholics in the U.S. and in Canada are rightly angry, chagrined and bewildered.”
Cardinal McCarrick resigned at the end of July, and Pope Francis has imposed a life of seclusion, penance, and prayer on him until an investigation has been held.
“Civil and Church authorities are duty-bound to promptly address any abuse situation,” Archbishop Prendergast said. “There is no justification for hiding or covering up abuse. We must listen to victims and support them.”
Pope Francis has also publicly weighed in on the U.S. issue.
“The heart-wrenching pain of these victims, which cries out to heaven, was long ignored, kept quiet or silenced. But their outcry was more powerful than all the measures meant to silence it,” he said. “The Lord heard that cry and once again showed us on which side he stands.”
The Pope said the ecclesial community “did not act in a timely manner” and “showed no care for the little ones,” and must now acknowledge and condemn those actions, and ask for forgiveness and mercy.
Archbishop Miller asked anyone aware of an ongoing abuse situation to immediately contact law enforcement and, if it involves the local Church, to contact the Archdiocese of Vancouver.
He added he will issue a pastoral letter in the next few weeks, outlining plans for prayer, fasting, and other ways the local Church can offer prayers and penance for victims.
With files from Deborah Gyapong of Canadian Catholic News and Agnieszka Krawczynski.