A newly published letter shows Vatican officials were warned of sexual abuse allegations against Bernard Prince, a Canadian Catholic priest they had promoted to a top Vatican position.
Bishop Joseph Windle of Pembroke, Ont., sent the letter to the pope's envoy to Canada on Feb. 10, 1993, two years after Prince was made secretary general for the Vatican's Pontifical Society for the Propagation of the Faith.
"In conscience, and before God, I must inform your Excellency that I am adamantly opposed to Fr. Prince receiving any Papal honour or ever being promoted to the Episcopate," Windle wrote. "The consequences of such an action would be disastrous, not only for the Canadian Church but for the Holy See, as well."
Windle does not state specifically that there were allegations of sexual abuse against Prince, who was a friend of the late Pope John Paul II. Instead, Windle refers to "four or five victims" who suffered "traumatic memories of their experiences"; "unfortunate events" and "Fr. Prince's untoward conduct."
Honouring Prince could "trigger a reaction among the victim(s) ... and this would prove extremely embarrassing both to the Holy See and to the Diocese of Pembroke, not to mention the possibility of criminal charges being laid and a civil lawsuit ensuing," Windle warned.
He suggested his concerns were shared by other bishops, including:
- Archbishop Aloysius Ambrozic, of Toronto.
- Archbishop Joseph Lawrence Wilhelm, of Kingston.
- Archbishop Francis Spence, Wilhelm's successor.
- Archbishop Marcel Gervais, of Ottawa.
- Bishop John O'Mara, of Thunder Bay.
- Bishop Anthony Tonnos, of Hamilton.
Prince served at the Vatican until he retired in 2004.
He was still living in Rome when Ontario Provincial Police issued a warrant for his arrest on accusations of sexual abuse.
He was convicted in 2008 of molesting 13 boys in Canada between 1964 and 1984.
He originally faced more than 30 charges, including buggery, indecent assault and gross indecency, against the boys, who were aged 12 to 15. Many of them were altar boys he met in the small Polish community of Wilno, near Algonquin Park.
The incidents took place at Prince's cottage, his Ottawa apartment and at the victims' homes.
Robert Talach, the London, Ont.-based lawyer representing a number of Prince's victims, said the church's apparent lack of a response to warnings comes from both its desire to avoid scandal and a lack of understanding of the seriousness of the alleged crimes.
"[There is a] scandal-centric attitude on reducing scandal at all costs, which ironically in the long-run now has created more scandal than anything," said Talach.
"It seems to be norm now that there isn't an appropriate reaction at any level of the church, that this crime of child sexual abuse is not viewed in the same eye as secular society views it," he said.
Prince was defrocked and is in jail serving a four-year sentence.