On the eve of the Vatican summit on clerical sexual abuse in February 2019, Roman officials praised the Canadian bishops’ guidelines on responsible ministry, “Protecting Minors from Sexual Abuse: A Call to the Catholic Faithful in Canada for Healing, Reconciliation, and Transformation,” as a model that might be emulated by other bishops’ conferences throughout the world. Adopted at the Plenary Assembly of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) in September of 2018, it was an updating of the first guidelines on clergy sexual abuse in 1992, From Pain to Hope, established following the notorious case of abuse of children in the Mount Cashel Orphanage run by the Christian Brothers in St. John’s Newfoundland. While the CCCB pioneered the development of protocols for the investigation of abuse, Canada remains one of the few Western countries that has yet to experience an external audit for their effective implementation or see a comprehensive inquiry into historic abuse.
As if to rouse Canadian church leaders from their self-congratulatory complacency or to shock the sanguine conscience, on November 25, the Archdiocese of Montreal released the report of an independent investigation into the (mis)handling of complaints against former priest, Brian Boucher, now serving an eight-year prison sentence for the sexual assault of two young men. Retired Quebec Superior Court Justice Pepita G. Capriolo paints a detailed and sorry picture of repeated failures to investigate multiple complaints concerning Boucher’s inappropriate behaviors that predate his 1987 admission into seminary.
After interviewing over 60 witnesses, the good judge was “shocked” to find a deeply ingrained culture of secrecy and buck-passing where “no one took responsibility for acting” on complaints. Files and documents were “lost” or destroyed. ‘Secret files’ were hidden even from the archbishop, providing a pretext of plausible deniability in the event that police came looking. Curial staff proposed sending the Boucher files to the papal nunciature where they would be protected by diplomatic immunity. The “primary culprit” in a travesty of faults: lack of accountability. Absent any direct evidence of sexual abuse, no one was prepared to act. Capriolo sums up the “Catch 22” attitude of many: “one cannot investigate without proof, and proof cannot be obtained without an investigation. Ergo: do nothing.”
This tragic spectacle transpired against the background of the 1992 guidelines of the CCCB, From Pain to Hope that called for “giving priority to the protection of children and vulnerable adults, taking allegations of sexual misconduct seriously, independently of esteem for the reputation of the accused.” Boucher’s case was never referred to the diocesan advisory committee on sexual abuse established in response to From Pain to Hope. At almost every turn the desire to protect the reputation of the diocese and its priest trumped all others.
The Capriolo report shines a bright light on the weakness of the response to the sexual abuse crisis across Canada. It is well to have policies and procedures, but without transparency and accountability, one is reduced to a blind trust that every bishop has put them into action with effect. Advisory committees appointed by and reporting back to bishops are liable to remain, but a new cog in a closed wheelhouse. There is no way to verify that every complaint is being referred to competent professionals, that these are being properly documented, or referred to appropriate civil authorities.
Among the important lessons drawn by the report is that “limiting the obligation to intervene to cases of sexual abuse of minors is a mistake.” This is not the first case where seminary and diocesan staff were prepared to look the other way when presented with repeated complaints of psychologically and physically abusive behaviors – some of which might have been recognized sooner as manifestations of grooming behavior. Capriolo connects the dots between sexual abuse and other abusive conduct. Her observation bears repeating:
I do not believe that restricting the need for greater responsibility, accountability and transparency to the sole issue of sexual abuse of minors is reasonable. All abuse, be it sexual, physical or psychological is unacceptable. And although the idea of subjecting a child to sexual abuse is particularly abhorrent, the abuse of anyone in a position of vulnerability and inferiority must equally be pointed out and eliminated. … A priest has an inordinate power over people who put their trust in his spiritual strength and his apparent connection with the divine. It is therefore easy for a priest to abuse this trust if he so wishes and that can happen even if his victim is 18, 25 or 90.
This insight into the abuse of power underpins the recommendation that “all issues of abusive behavior, not limited to sexual abuse of minors, be referred immediately to a modified advisory committee.” To break a dithering self-protective closed circuit of inaction, the report recommends the appointment of a “qualified specially trained external ombudsperson” (emphasis in the original) to receive and investigate all complaints and allegations of abuse, all of which are to be brought to the attention of the modified advisory committee. These measures, combined with improved education and training concerning the nature of abuse and the obligation to report – reinforced by clear sanctions, improved protocols for record keeping and the disclosure of information and the publication of regular audits – would mark important progress.
Wisely, Archbishop Lépine has committed to pursuing a full review of Montreal’s diocesan archives in the interest of greater transparency and of learning from the past. The publication of the Capriolo report is an important first step toward a culture of greater transparency and accountability. While it may rightly provoke anger and shame, to achieve its purpose it must become a source of learning for the whole Catholic community.
Catherine E. Clifford, is a professor at Saint Paul University, Ontario.