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Catholic Church ignores lessons from Canada

Trailblazing work done by Canadian investigators into Church sex abuse goes all but unnoticed by Catholic Church worldwide.

An actor playing Jesus Christ carries a wooden cross through downtown streets on Toronto, July 26, 2002. (Marcos Townsend/AFP/Getty Images)

TORONTO, Canada — As a kid, I had no idea how unfortunately common my experience of the Roman Catholic Church would turn out to be.

I grew up in the east end of Montreal, a member of a close-knit enclave of Italians in a French-speaking neighborhood near the shores of the St. Lawrence River.

On Sundays, we’d gather for mass in the gym of a local school. Around 1970, a parish church was built, partly with donations from every family I knew. It quickly became the cultural, recreational and, of course, religious center of our small community.

It also became the place where some of my friends — boys and girls — were sexually abused by a priest.

I escaped his predation partly, I’m sure, because I spent far less time at the church than my altar boy friends. Incredulous and angry, they would often tell me of their ordeal. But they never told their parents, or anyone in authority. It never entered any of our minds to do so.

Community concerns nonetheless grew. “Do what the priest says, not what he does,” was widely advised. Church authorities eventually did what we now recognize as common practice: They transferred the pedophile priest to a different parish.

At an early age, in other words, I came to see the Catholic Church as hypocritical and contemptible. How could I not?

Neither did it surprise me when, in the 1980s, sex abuse scandals involving Catholic priests and thousands of child victims erupted in Canada.

What is surprising today, even shocking, is how little the Catholic Church worldwide learned from the trailblazing work done by the Canadian Church when it confronted its demons.

“Anyone who was paying attention had to know, at least 20 years ago, that there’s a right way to manage this and a wrong way,” says Sister Nuala Kenny, professor emeritus of bioethics at Dalhousie University in Halifax, referring to sex abuse scandals rocking the Church in Europe.

“But that’s where the systemic issues kick in: If you’re (simply) trying to avoid scandal and you’re into denial about some of these things, they don’t go away,” Kenny, a Catholic nun and pediatrician, added in an interview.

Few know better than Kenny.

In 1990, she was a member of the Winter Commission, set up by the Catholic Church to investigate the sexual abuse of boys by members of the Christian Brothers religious order at the notorious Mount Cashel orphanage in the Atlantic province of Newfoundland in the 1970s and 1980s.

Two years later she became a member of the Ad Hoc Committee on Child Sexual Abuse, set up by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. It’s report, From Pain to Hope, was issued after the Church and the Ontario government agreed to a $40-million compensation package for 1,600 men abused as children at two Catholic training schools near Ottawa and Toronto. Police laid more than 200 assault and sex-related charges, which ended in 15 convictions.

Both reports were widely applauded for pulling few punches. The Winter Commission called on bishops to question the power, accountability and celibacy of priests, describing the latter as creating “excessive and destructive pressures” on some in the Church.

Allegations of child abuse, the reports insisted, must be treated as potential crimes — rather than internal church matters — and reported to civil authorities. The primary obligation, they stressed, is protection of the child.

Yet in subsequent scandals in Boston and Ireland, priests accused of sex abuse were simply moved to other parishes, while Church authorities turned a blind eye to allegations, if not flatly tried to cover them up. Sex abuse scandals have also hit Germany, Netherlands, Austria and Switzerland.