Clergy abuse support group reaches N.L.

Ashley Fitzpatrick afitzpatrick@thetelegram.com
Published on November 12, 2011

An international non-profit group providing support for victims of sexual abuse by priests is expanding its presence in Canada.

The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) has opened a new branch for the Maritimes and is reaching out to abuse victims in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The group is also launching a call for changes to Catholic Church policy aimed, they say, at protecting against future abuse.

SNAP has branches in Edmonton, Vancouver, Montreal and, as of October of this year, Saint John, N.B.

Despite the name, the U.S.-based non-profit is open to those abused by laypersons and clerical members of a religious order, as well as non-secular groups.

It survives on donations and volunteers, with five staff members at its core.

The organization’s move into the Maritimes began in mid-October. In less than a month, the branch leader for SNAP Maritimes said he had been contacted by over 80 people, with 61 having identified themselves as victims and signed on for more information and monthly survivor meetings.

Dave Mantin told The Telegram he’d be interested in connecting with survivors in this province and beginning meetings here.

He will be in St. John’s this week, meeting with two abuse survivors.

He will also be stopping at the offices of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. John’s, to present Archbishop Martin Currie with a letter calling for three things: changes within Church regulations that would see priests accused of abuse listed on an international registry and tracked by the Church; payment for therapy for victims of the Church while cases await trial; and the immediate defrocking of priests who are convicted of abuse.

“These are drastic changes we are asking for and it’s for the protection of the children and to help the victims of sexual abuse,” Mantin said.

The Telegram contacted the archdiocese but Currie is in Peru until Nov. 17, participating in celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the presence of the Sisters of Mercy in Newfoundland.

However, an emailed statement sent by his his executive assistant, Anne Walsh, noted, “the scourge of sexual abuse by members of the clergy at all levels is a scandal and a tragedy for the victim/survivor and the secondary victims — family, parishioners and the people, inside and outside the Church ‘family’ who look for something better, something hopeful.”

She noted a continued interest among the faithful in addressing the subject.

“The Church stands for the dignity of the human person and against abuse, exploitations and any form of subjugation, degradation and violation,” she wrote.

“We would welcome the collaboration of any group who would be willing to work with us for that better future.”

•••

That sentiment was met with skepticism by Mantin, who told The Telegram, he feels it has so far been left to SNAP and other members of the public to support victims, track abusive priests and push for systemic changes for abuse prevention.

The Church has been screening clergy since the 1980s. Dioceses in the province now suspend a priest or bishop from active ministry when an accusation of abuse has been made and are to immediately turn investigations over to the police.

But what concerns SNAP and others tracking offenders is the re-introduction of the convicted into the community without internal action being taken — such as defrocking — following their sentence.

These priests typically do not conduct mass, but have taken positions such as chaplains for hospitals and prisons.

In 1977, Father Leonard Paradis was a priest in Sheshatshiu.

In 1989, at the age of 41, he pleaded guilty to four charges of gross indecency — fondling the genitals of young male parishioners. He was sentenced to three years of probation and therapy.

In 1997, an Ottawa Sun report, titled “Sins of the Fathers,” revealed Paradis was occasionally offering mass at St. Joseph’s Church in Ottawa.

Similarly, Brother John Evangelist Murphy was found guilty in Newfoundland and Labrador in May 2004 of four counts of indecent assault dating back to the 1950s and 1960s. He was given a 20-month conditional sentence — house arrest.

That same year, he was found to be dealing with parishioners in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Albany, N.Y.

The diocesan spokesman told the Dallas Morning News they were not aware of Murphy’s background, or his sentence.

In Murphy’s case, parishioners raised concerns about his continued work in the diocese and a man in this province started mailing press clippings to people in the area.

Murphy was pulled from his duties in December 2004.

The simple attendance of a convicted priest at Church functions can be enough to cause public controversy.

In 2010, Archbishop Martin Currie came to the defence of Father Michael Walsh after parishioners in St. Brendan’s expressed their concerns about Walsh’s presence at such functions.

In 1991, Walsh had pleaded guilty to sexually abusing teenage boys in central Newfoundland.

Currie visited the community, celebrated mass and spoke to  parishioners about their concerns.

“He’ll never be a parish priest. He’ll never exercise any ministry. I may even tell him he’s not even to go to church anymore out there,” Currie said, attempting to calm the disturbance.

•••

A lawyer based in Ontario, Rob Talach said he supports the changes to Church procedure that S.N.A.P. is asking for, including the defrocking of convicted priests.

Talach was part of a team from law firm Ledroit Beckett that achieved a $3-million judgement against the Diocese of London (Ontario) on behalf of a family that had three children sexually abused by a priest. He has worked on hundreds of sexual abuse cases.

“(The Church) can’t supervise these guys effectively. They don’t let enough people know their past,” he said.

“The biggest problem with him coming back and supposedly being supervised or being restricted is that not everybody knows who are the bad apples and who aren’t. So how can you supervise someone when the supervisors don’t even know and many times the restrictions have slowly lifted?”

Talach said even with a good parish pastoral team willing to supervise a convicted priest, there’s too much risk involved in allowing a known abuser to maintain his status within the church.

“He’s wearing a Roman collar. He’s walking down the street. He’s going to schools. He’s going to be places where he’s going to bump into someone who doesn’t know his past, and to them, that collar gives him instant respect, prestige and authority,” he said.

He also said that’s unfair to priests who have not committed any crimes, leading the public to question whether or not they are one of the “recycled” priests.

“Listen, there are thousands of different types of occupations in this world. Why would we ever let someone return to the same job that they manipulated to abuse children?”

As for tracking convicted clergy, Canada’s National Sex Offenders Registry only came into effect in December 2004 and it is not retroactive, meaning clergy sentenced before that year would not be included.

•••

Abuse by clergy is not simply in this province’s past.

The Mount Cashel Orphanage cases have stretched into the present, as extradition requests were considered for Christian Brothers who had made their way to the United States and civil cases settled.

In 2005, 39 former altar boys who worked with Father Kevin Bennett, all now adults struggling to recover from the lifelong impacts of his abuse, were collectively awarded $13 million in compensation. As The Telegram has reported, some are still awaiting their full settlements. 

And new cases have come along.

In 2008, Father Patrick Robert Offin, then 55, pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a young girl at his home in Holyrood. He was given a suspended sentence — no jail time, but a criminal record. His name is listed in the National Sex Offenders Registry.

In 2010, Father George Smith was removed from his duties in a parish on Prince Edward Island when RCMP in this province were approached by a man who said he had been sexually abused by the priest while he was serving here. The man alleged it happened between 1978 and 1980, while he was an altar boy at St. Columcille Roman Catholic Church in St. Fintan’s.

When news of the allegations against Smith first broke, after halting his work in P.E.I., both the bishop of the Corner Brook and Labrador Roman Catholic Diocese and the RCMP said they did not know his whereabouts.

This week, the RCMP confirmed that the investigation is continuing but no charges have been laid.

Meanwhile, the sentencing of Archbishop Raymond Lahey, who had worked here and in Antigonish, N.S., is set to continue by year’s end.

SNAP has called for jail time for Lahey, who was found to have child pornography on his laptop at the airport in Ottawa in 2009. Close to 600 pornographic images featuring young boys were discovered on his computer and phone.

Lahey had overseen a $13-million settlement for child abuse victims in the Antigonish diocese. He also provided testimony for many the court cases in this province, questioned on his knowledge of abuse by members of the Church.

•••

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. John’s has said that, as of 2010, if a priest or bishop is convicted he will be subject to a Church trial, after his civil trial.

The potential penalties from the church trial include defrocking, being sentenced to a life of prayer and penance in an isolated setting, or the removal of certain rights and privileges.

Mantin said SNAP would like to see that in writing from each diocese in Atlantic Canada.

 

afitzpatrick@thetelegram.com