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RUSSELL WANGERSKY: Chronicling clergy abuse

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Sometimes, it’s as simple as walking down a hallway you’ve taken before.

A little context: years ago, my first reporting job in the media, at an investigative weekly, was, through some great coincidence, located in the same building where I now work as a regional columnist.

Every now and then, it’s like the years fall away, and my feet are suddenly in the same place they were when I started out. The carpet’s different, but otherwise, it’s very much the same.

This week brought that home in a shattering way.

The week started with news from the United States about changes that individual states are bringing in to legislation around civil actions for sexual abuse by clergy — so-called “lookback windows” that will allow lawsuits against clergy stretching back for years. The Associated Press estimates the Catholic Church alone could be looking at damages topping US$4 billion, almost doubling what the church has paid out so far. New California law will allow damages to be tripled if a coverup of abuse can be proven.

I’ve been working in the media for 35 years. More than 30 years ago, I was walking the back hall in this building as our newspaper was preparing article after article on sexual abuse by Catholic clergy, both by priests and by members of the Irish Christian Brothers, who ran the Mount Cashel Orphanage. Articles about how abusive priests and brothers were moved quietly out of the jurisdiction for “treatment” before being reassigned to new parishes, articles about the way police investigations were short-circuited by senior Church officials. Stories about how children were groomed and silenced.

But back to this week: on Tuesday, I read about a California school: “A year-long CNN investigation into the Salesians of Don Bosco discovered that for decades, abuser priests and brothers were repeatedly protected and transferred from school to school at the expense of their young victims who were pressured and threatened not to report what had happened to them.”

Every now and then, it’s like the years fall away, and my feet are suddenly in the same place they were when I started out.

Priests and brothers, protected by the Church and transferred to new hunting grounds? Not news to me. The grooming techniques that the American media are describing are well familiar to me, too: I heard them explained, with precision, with embarrassment, with shame, directly from the mouths of young men who had spent time in the dormitories managed by the Christian Brothers.

Those aren’t the only things that are sickeningly familiar.

American archdioceses and religious orders, faced with huge court settlements, are now declaring bankruptcy, doling out small shares of damages while the corporate headquarters of the Catholic Church carries on, its wealth unencumbered by the fallout from the actions of its direct representatives.

As the Associated Press pointed out, less than a year after New York’s legislation came into force, “the Diocese of Rochester filed for bankruptcy, the 20th diocese or religious order in the country to do so.”

The Irish Christian Brothers did the same thing, years ago.

It’s trite to say all that is old is new again.

But think about it: in my entire career, over three decades in journalism, there have been constant — in fact, near-continuous — reports of sexual abuse by clergy, and reports of how the church hierarchy acted to stifle investigations into that abuse. Year after year, new cases and old stories.

I occasionally hear from former victims of Mount Cashel and of Newfoundland priests, by the way, even 30 years later.

Their lives have been far from easy ones.

I don’t hear from all of them — not the ones that have died by their own hands or the ones who have wound up, lives wrecked, in jail.

There are things that lawsuits, settlements and even apologies will never fix.

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in SaltWire publications across Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at — Twitter: @wangersky


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