Southdown Institute: A 'shield' for the Church or a place to provide 'meaningful' help for pedophile priests?

The Toronto-area clergy rehab centre and facilities like it have come under renewed scrutiny following the recent grand jury report about widespread sexual abuse by priests in Pennsylvania.

Recent grand jury report says at least 7 Pennsylvania priests sent to Toronto-area facility for treatment

The Southdown Institute north of Toronto employs a team of psychologists and psychiatrists who mostly deal with clergy suffering from mental-health issues such as alcoholism and depression. But a small number of priests accused of molesting children are also sent there. (Southdown Institute website)

In 1993, Boston priest Chris Schiavone was sent to the Southdown Institute for some "therapeutic renewal" after admitting to church superiors that he'd been involved in a gay relationship with a 26-year-old seminarian.

Among the patients at the clergy rehab centre north of Toronto were a few who had been accused of molesting children, he said, including the very priest who had baptized Schiavone years earlier.

"My response to that was very mixed. Part of that is, 'Wow, this is quite horrifying,'" Schiavone said in an interview with CBC News. "And then another part of it was so deeply sad. So deeply sad [that] this person who played some role in my own spiritual journey, in the spiritual lives of so many people, is now here."

While Schiavone said his experience there was a positive one, Southdown and treatment centres like it have come under renewed scrutiny following the recent grand jury report about clergy sexual abuse in Pennsylvania. The more than 1,300 pages include allegations church officials would hide priests accused of molesting children at rehab centres before reassigning them. 

But Dr. Samuel Mikail, a psychologist who was clinical director at the Southdown Institute from 2002 until 2015, said in his experience, the large majority of church leadership that referred people to the rehab centre "were hoping that something meaningful can come out of the experience."

"In terms of the person coming to clarity about the damage that they've done to others and then to begin to really work on that internally, both from a psychological and spiritual point of view," he said.

Southdown employs a team of psychologists and psychiatrists who mostly deal with clergy suffering from mental-health issues such as alcoholism and depression. But a small number of priests accused of molesting children are also sent there.

It was one of the treatment facilities mentioned in the grand jury report released last week that claims hundreds of Roman Catholic priests in Pennsylvania engaged in sexual abuse since the 1940s.

The report says at least seven Pennsylvania priests were sent to Southdown for treatment. But the institute's assessment of some of those priests — that they should never be near children — didn't seem to deter the church from allowing them to continue to play a role in church activities.

A grand jury report claims to document seven decades of child sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests in Pennsylvania. It says church officials allowed priests to continue restricted or regular duties despite credible allegations of abuse. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

In at least one case, in 1984, Southdown officials warned that a priest who had admitted to sexually molesting a 14-year-old child and had received treatment there for eight months should not be put in a position where he would have responsibility for adolescents, the report says.

Yet the church seemed to ignore the institute's advice, and later assigned the priest to a parish in Conshohocken, Pa., with a grade school and encouraged him to "educate youth."

'They were tough'

Schiavone said his own eight-month stint at Southdown provided the help he needed to deal with his own emotional turmoil following the revelation of his affair, coming out as a gay man and decision to leave the church.

He recalls that during group therapy sessions, those priests who were there for molesting children weren't let off the hook by the therapists. 

"They were tough. If someone was trying to sort of walk back their personal responsibility, or someone was trying to rationalize why it was they thought they could return safely to the ministry, none of the therapists I observed would stand for it."

A spokesman for the Archdiocese of Toronto told The Canadian Press it sends priests to Southdown periodically "to deal with a variety of issues, for example depression, alcohol or other similar situations, as well as psychological assessments if needed."

Dr. Samuel Mikail, a psychologist, was clinical director of the Southdown Institute from 2002 until 2015. (LinkedIn)

Dorothy Heiderscheit, the CEO of Southdown, would not comment on the recent grand jury report or talk about the role of the facility, instead referring CBC to the institute's website.

Yet the grand jury report paints a bleak picture about the use of some of these types of facilities. While not singling out Southdown, it said other centres in Pennsylvania, Maryland and New Mexico "laundered accused priests, provided plausible deniability to the bishops, and permitted hundreds of known offenders to return to ministry."

Not sharing information

Dr. Mikail said in cases of sexual molestation of children, Southdown's role was to either assess the credibility of the allegations or, when it was clear that abuse had occurred, mitigate any sexual behaviour that might put someone else at risk.

However, there were some cases, he said, where it became evident that church officials were not sharing all the information they may have had on a particular priest.

'You're told that there was one or two instances of this kind of behaviour, where in fact there were many more instances that were known."

And making a diagnosis of pedophilia, Mikail said, is in part based on the frequency of the behaviour. 

Mikail said in his experience, he didn't believe the church ignored their assessments outright. What was more likely to happen, he said, is that Southdown would make recommendations that a priest have a "restricted ministry" or no ministry or be placed in a monastery where they would not have contact with the public.

Church officials would determine that the individual has been on very good behaviour for quite a period of time, that treatment had been successful and the restrictions might begin to be relaxed, Mikail said.

"I think it was a limited understanding of the fact that when someone has a pedophilic interest that's not something that changes."

Patrick Wall is a former priest turned activist for victims of clergy sexual abuse. He says abusive priests should be treated in secular facilities with no ties to the church. (Jeff Anderson & Associates website)

Patrick Wall, a former priest turned activist for victims of clergy sexual abuse, said religious superiors would use Southdown to gather as much information as they could about those priests facing molestation allegations, such as how many felonies they may have committed. 

"They also used it as a shield," he said, "in the sense that if they needed to get somebody out of a jurisdiction quickly because they thought that an arrest was imminent or civil lawsuits were going to be filed then they would ship them out of the United States into Southdown specifically for that purpose."

Wall, who has consulted on more than 200 cases of clergy abuse in the U.S., said priests shouldn't be treated at these types of facilities because they are too closely linked to the church. 

"There's no objectivity," he said. "And I think in order to protect the common good and to protect children in the future, the priests should be sent to secular institutions in order to be treated properly."

About the Author

Mark Gollom


Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

With files from The Canadian Press