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Canada church acts in "name of the scandal"

Bishops have the power to preserve church's image — changing that would be a historical revolution.

Bishop Zygmunt Zimowski, the bishop of Radom, Poland, holds his hands in front of his cross after an outdoor prayer service for the ailing Pope John Paul II in front of the Pope's statue in Toronto, April 1, 2005. (Mike Cassese/Reuters)

TORONTO, Canada — It has become shockingly clear that protecting the church from scandal was the top priority for many Roman Catholic bishops when faced with priests who sexually abused children.

The impression this has created — church officials more concerned with the interests of the church than the wellbeing of children — has added to the outrage felt in the growing list of countries where sex abuse scandals have been made public.

Of the many examples, few have been as glaring as one that came to light last week, when a letter written by a Canadian bishop was submitted as evidence in a lawsuit by a sex abuse victim against the Diocese of Pembroke, in the eastern part of Ontario.

The letter makes clear that avoiding scandal was a key concern of the late Bishop Joseph Windle when writing to the Vatican about a pedophile priest in 1993. Windle was preoccupied with ensuring there was, as he put it, “little or no danger of any scandal ever emerging.”

The pedophile priest — the now-defrocked Monsignor Bernard Prince — was convicted in 2008 of sexually molesting 13 young boys between 1964 and 1984. Most of the incidents occurred in the Pembroke area of eastern Ontario. Prince is now serving a four-year prison sentence in Canada.

He was promoted to a top Vatican job overseeing missionary groups in 1991 — a year after allegations that he abused a boy were brought to the Diocese’s attention. In his letter two years later to the papal nuncio in Ottawa — the Vatican’s ambassador — Windle wrote that another four children had complained of sexual abuse by Prince.

Yet, Windle told the Vatican’s ambassador that he agreed with Prince’s move to Rome because “it would remove him from the Canadian scene.” Windle noted he also told Vatican Archbishop Jose Sanchez, now a cardinal, about the sex abuse allegations before Prince got the Rome posting.

A “redeeming factor,” Windle wrote, is that the family of one victim is of Polish background, “and their respect for the priesthood and the Church has made them refrain from making these allegations public or laying a criminal charge against a priest.

“Had this happened elsewhere, there would be every danger that charges would have been laid long ago with all the resultant scandal,” Windle added.

A year before the letter was written, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a report insisting that allegations of child sex abuse be reported to police. Yet Windle names a handful of Canadian bishops in his letter who knew about the allegations against Prince and apparently did not do so.

Prince retired from his Vatican job, head of the Pontifical Society for the Propagation of the Faith, in 2004 — 13 years after church and Vatican officials were told of sex abuse allegations. He was arrested in 2006, after victims went directly to police.