Montreal church leaders ignored warnings about priest convicted of sex crimes
As Brian Boucher was moved from one Montreal church to another, a disturbing pattern of behaviour emerged
For more than two decades, parishioners repeatedly warned Montreal church leaders about the troubling behaviour of Brian Boucher, a priest who was given an eight-year prison sentence last March for sexually abusing two young boys.
A months-long investigation by CBC Montreal has revealed the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Montreal was told on multiple occasions that Boucher was divisive, bullying and had worrisome relationships with young boys.
But the archdiocese took little action against Boucher until a police investigation in 2015.
CBC spoke to nearly 50 parishioners, church staff and priests who oversaw Boucher's work.
Many of the parishioners still have deep ties to the church and were reluctant to criticize it publicly. Others feared Boucher would track them down after his release.
For this reason, CBC has agreed not to reveal the identity of a number of its sources.
In these interviews, parishioners expressed frustration and dismay at how church leaders dealt with Boucher.
"They heard, but they didn't listen," said a parishioner at the last church where Boucher served before his arrest.
'I thought he was dangerous'
Boucher's suitability for the priesthood was questioned even before he was ordained.
In the early 1990s, Boucher interned at St. John Fisher, a church in Pointe-Claire, in Montreal's West Island. Several parishioners who attended the church at the time told CBC that Boucher was rigid, condescending and arrogant.
"That's not how priests should be," said one man who worked at the church. "He sort of treated you like dirt."
Boucher's interactions with the church's youth group were particularly alarming, according to one of its members. In order to protect his identity, CBC is instead calling him Steven.
Steven said Boucher bullied and isolated one of the group's leaders, and then took charge of the group himself.
Boucher sought to befriend the youth group's other members, positioning himself as a father figure and mentor.
But his attention was focused primarily on the boys. "The girls, he just completely ignored," Steven said.
Eventually, Boucher turned on Steven and encouraged some of the other children to bully him.
"It was really a very sick, perverse mentality of controlling," Steven said.
Many older parishioners treated Boucher like an extended family member, inviting him to graduations, birthdays and dinners.
Steven said he was worried about Boucher's behaviour but thought his concerns wouldn't be taken seriously because he was a teen at the time.
In November 1995, though, Steven took his concerns to Rev. Robert Harris, who oversaw the Grand Seminary in Montreal, where men train for the priesthood.
Boucher's ordination was delayed, according to sources with knowledge of the matter.
Rev. Peter Timmins, who oversaw Boucher's internship at St. John Fisher, said church officials had reservations about Boucher.
At a meeting to discuss which students were ready to be called to the priesthood, there was one Montreal priest who adamantly objected to Boucher's ordination, Timmins recalled.
Timmins said he defended Boucher at that meeting. "Boy, did I ever regret putting my heels in on that one," he said in an interview last spring. Now in his 80s, Timmins is in failing health and lives in a long-term care facility in Kingston, Ont.
While he was at St. John Fisher, Timmins said several girls in the youth group complained to him about the attention Boucher lavished on boys.
He said he dismissed their concerns at the time. "I was thinking, well, they are just kids, you know?"
Boucher was ordained in the summer of 1996. Along with Timmins, he was assigned to the parish of St. John Brébeuf in LaSalle, a borough of Montreal.
But even after Boucher left for his new parish, Steven continued trying to warn high-level church officials about the behaviour he witnessed. "I thought he was dangerous," Steven said.
Different church, similar concerns
In LaSalle, Boucher's behaviour again polarized parishioners and raised questions among them.
Not long after they arrived at St. John Brébeuf, Timmins noticed that Boucher had taken a boy about 10 years old under his wing.
The boy's father was absent, and Timmins initially thought Boucher was doing the right thing. But many parishioners told CBC they were uneasy about the relationship — and said as much to Timmins.
Timmins said a few young parishioners came to see him with their concerns. They "tried to ram it down my throat by saying, 'You've got to see it. Don't you see it? Don't you see it?'" said Timmins.
"Finally, I said to myself, I've got to listen to these kids. Gradually, more and more, I understood where they were coming from, and more and more, I couldn't eat. I just felt sick."
A young married couple also came to see him with similar worries, he said.
They had observed the boy spending a lot of time at the rectory, where Boucher lived. Boucher took the boy for haircuts and shopping for clothes. He also took the boy on weekend trips alone.
The church's former secretary, Nancy Gallie, said she noticed the boy entering the rectory several times with his own key.
Timmins was on vacation at the time, so Boucher was there alone. Gallie said she suspected the boy was sleeping over.
"It just didn't sit well with me," she said. "I can't explain it — it was just something inside me that said, this isn't right."
Gallie spoke with Timmins about the incident when he returned. Afterward, Boucher tried, unsuccessfully, to get her fired.
When asked for more details about what he was told and what he believed was happening, Timmins said he couldn't remember. Timmins was also vague when asked how he handled the complaints about Boucher, saying he has a form of dementia.
"I don't think I said very much," said Timmins. "I don't think I felt I could."
He said he had become fearful of Boucher's temper. "I suddenly became a stranger in my own rectory."
Instead, Timmins said he and his church wardens made "sufficient noises" to the archdiocese about their problems with Boucher. Again, he wouldn't elaborate on what was said to the archdiocese, beyond telling them Boucher was arrogant and difficult to work with.
"I wasn't spelling it out so much to the authorities as I was describing what I saw," said Timmins. "The purpose of my conversation was to inform, not to condemn."
Timmins said he was at first shocked when he heard about Boucher's arrest. "Yet, when I thought back a bit, I realized I had no right to that shock," he said.
Last January, Boucher pleaded guilty to one count of sexual interference and one count of invitation to sexual touching. His victim was that same boy parishioners and the church secretary had warned Timmins about.
Asked if he was surprised to learn the victim's identity, Timmins responded: "It would surprise me otherwise."
The victim, identified in court documents as A.B., testified that by the time he was 11, Boucher was abusing him almost weekly. Now in his 30s, A.B. testified Boucher would take him to motels, where he'd touch him and force him to give and receive oral sex.
When he was about 13, A.B. said, he began to distance himself from Boucher. The priest then broke into A.B.'s home in an attempt to speak with him. Police were called and A.B.'s mother told Boucher her son didn't want to see him anymore.
The abuse ended around 1999, A.B. said.
In a recent interview, A.B. said it was difficult for him to learn that Timmins may have suspected he was being abused.
"What did he have to gain by not saying anything?" said A.B. "Isn't that part of your job? Isn't that what you're supposed to do?"
Church paid for Boucher to get help
Boucher was transferred from St. John Brébeuf around 2000. Not long after, Timmins also left the parish and moved to Kingston.
"He fouled his bed sufficiently and had to be out of there. There were no two ways about it," said Timmins.
Boucher was assigned to short stints at McGill University's Newman Centre, Saint Patrick's Basilica in downtown Montreal, and as a pastoral animator at both the Lakeshore General Hospital and the West Island Palliative Care Residence.
At some point during this period, the Montreal Catholic Church sent Boucher to get treatment at the Southdown Institute.
Located north of Toronto, it employs a team of psychologists and psychiatrists who mostly deal with clergy suffering from mental-health issues, such as alcoholism and depression. A small number of priests suspected or accused of molesting children are also sent there.
Rev. Sean Harty, who oversaw the English-speaking sector of the Montreal Catholic Church between 2003 and 2015, said Boucher was treated for problems related to anxiety, authority, control and a lack of collaboration.
"We spent a lot of money to help him. A lot of money," said Harty, who is a trained psychotherapist.
But Harty said there was never any question of sexual perversion or abuse.
"Certainly, there were behaviours, I think, on his part that were reflective of his need for care," Harty said. "And we saw to it that he did get the care. But not for the issue he was found guilty in the courts for."
A prominent advocate for victims of clergy sexual abuse said priests are often sent into palliative care or hospital settings when they are suspected of child abuse.
"You don't find a lot of children there. Plus, you have more supervision; you have more eyeballs on them," said Patrick Wall, a former priest who has consulted on more than 200 abuse cases in the United States.
But the pressure to keep parishes open means these priests are often given a second chance and returned to ministry.
"We see that pattern over and over again," said Wall.
In 2005, the archdiocese decided to return Boucher to ministry as the sole parish priest at Our Lady of the Annunciation in the Town of Mount Royal (TMR), an affluent Montreal island municipality.
The news was not well-received by large parts of the parish. Well-connected parishioners were aware of Boucher's reputation and attempted to block his appointment.
One of them was the late Vera Danyluk, TMR's mayor at the time and a close friend of Timmins.
Another was parishioner David Dussault, who said he and his fellow parishioners were aware of the church's track record with predatory priests in Boston and New York. Although they had no evidence suggesting Boucher was engaged in similar practices, Dussault said the group was still wary and wanted to be proactive.
"We didn't want anything to happen on our watch," Dussault said.
The group met with Harty, who assured them Boucher was not a pedophile.
Harty told them a psychological profile had been done and that Boucher had received therapy for anger management issues. "He was quite confident [Boucher] was ready to do parish administration," said Dussault.
But not long after Boucher took up his appointment, concerns emerged again about his controlling personality and closeness with young boys. His authoritative management style upset many older parishioners.
"It was his way or the highway," said Kurt Reckziegel, a church warden.
This growing dislike for Boucher created a rift in the congregation, said Reckziegel.
"We were upset with some of the younger people, who seemed to think he was wonderful. We thought he was the worst thing that ever happened to the parish," he said.
Several parishioners said Boucher had an inner circle of supporters who defended him and reported any criticism they overheard.
Boucher restricted access to the church and rectory. Longtime volunteers, who once moved around the rectory freely, were stripped of their keys. The alarm system was changed, allowing Boucher to monitor who was coming in.
Some parishioners noticed a number of boys had keys and let themselves into the rectory, where Boucher lived.
This unnerved some parents. One woman refused to let her son attend a sleepover that Boucher had organized in the church basement.
According to her family, Boucher threatened to withhold the boy's confirmation — an important rite of passage for Catholics — if he didn't attend the sleepover. The family opted to leave the parish.
Another parishioner wonders if he narrowly dodged being one of Boucher's victims. Like the boy Boucher had abused in LaSalle, he also had a difficult family life. "Boucher worked hard to get my mom's trust," he recalled.
Now a young man, he said when he was a child, Boucher occasionally picked him up from church or home to take him to restaurants alone.
In order to protect their identities, the boy is being called Alan and his grandfather, Terry.
Terry said he had a prickly relationship with Boucher, and believes Boucher began to pick on his grandson out of spite.
The bullying got so bad, Terry said, that he wrote to the archdiocese and later met with Harty. Terry said Harty acted as if Boucher was someone to pity.
"He said, you know, he's sort of mixed up sometimes and he needs some encouragement," said Terry.
But the bullying did not stop. It reached a breaking point in the spring of 2007 when the church hosted a concert.
Alan's mother asked Boucher to convince her son to stay for the show. Boucher took the 11-year-old to his office, alone, and locked the door.
Boucher threatened to withhold his confirmation, the family said, then forcibly hugged Alan, asking him: "Do you think I'm a bad man?"
Alan's grandfather tried to confront Boucher about the incident the next day, but Boucher locked himself in the rectory. Someone at the church called the police.
Terry again complained to the archdiocese, but Boucher stayed on. Fed up and disgusted, the family began attending a different church.
Alan doesn't like to think about what could have happened if his grandfather hadn't intervened.
"It's unsettling," he said.
Mayor rebuffed by church officials
As TMR's mayor and an influential parishioner at Our Lady of the Annunciation, Danyluk received calls from people who lived near the church. They were worried about boys going in and out of the rectory, recalled a friend of Danyluk's.
The friend said Danyluk met with Harty about the concerns.
"I know Vera felt very let down by the archdiocese," the friend said. "When she had approached the archdiocese, she had been told, 'Nope, there was nothing, it was fine. All's well.'"
In an email sent to CBC after this story was originally published, Harty denied ever having met with Danyluk alone after Boucher took up his position at Our Lady of the Annunciation.
Timmins said that Danyluk, who died in 2010, both met with and wrote the archdiocese about Boucher's close relationships with boys and questioned his suitability as a priest. He said Danyluk was brushed off.
"Some of them were absolutely insulting, almost like, 'You just go home and have a drink with your husband.'"
Several people close to Danyluk, including her husband, told CBC that she privately suspected Boucher was molesting children.
"Unless you can prove it, you can get yourself and other people into a lot of trouble," said her husband, Victor Danyluk.
It turned out Danyluk's fears about Boucher were spot-on.
In court proceedings against Boucher, it was later revealed he sexually touched and raped an altar boy in the TMR church's rectory beginning in 2008. The boy was in his early teens at the time.
The victim testified in court that Boucher had found out about a "grinding" incident with a girl at a high-school dance.
Boucher threatened to tell the victim's parents. He asked the boy to strip naked in order to be completely truthful. Boucher then touched the boy's genitals and asked the boy to sit on his lap.
The boy said he was physically intimidated by Boucher, who threatened him into silence, and that the abuse lasted until 2011.
In 2014, the archdiocese sent Boucher to study in Washington, D.C., for an extended period.
Montreal Archbishop Christian Lépine was responsible for that decision. Last month, he told CBC he was not aware of any allegations of abuse at the time.
Boucher was good at providing religious instruction to adults and children, Lépine said. The plan was for Boucher to study catechism.
Sometimes priests who struggle with parish work are retrained, Harty said, then sent to work in the archdiocese's offices or placed in an institute or seminary to teach.
"Maybe that was the plan," said Harty. "But I never really saw Brian as a mentor for future priests."
Reached in Cornwall, Ont., where he now fills in at area churches, Harty confirmed people did come to see him about Boucher. But he also said that for every complaint against Boucher, there were "50 people who would have sworn by him."
Harty retired in September 2015 after a period of poor health.
The complaints about Boucher's behaviour — which Harty reiterated were not sexual, but rather due to a lack of collaboration — were likely behind the decision to send him to Washington, he said.
When asked why the church chooses to invest so much time and money on problematic priests, as opposed to simply removing them, Harty replied that it was the church's duty to do so.
"We are not nominally in the forgiveness business," he said.
About a year after Boucher was transferred to Washington, in August 2015, the former altar boy in TMR told police about the abuse.
"I felt like a prisoner in my own life," the victim later testified in court. "I wanted to be free of it and prevent it from happening to someone else. He was a predator."
The archdiocese said it first learned of allegations against Boucher in December 2015.
Boucher was arrested in January 2017.
'Too little, too late'
After Boucher was sentenced in March, Lépine, the archbishop, personally visited Our Lady of the Annunciation. The meeting was intended to help parishioners heal and move on.
To some parishioners, it felt like damage control.
Two women said the questions had to be cleared by church officials in advance.
Parents were angry the archdiocese did not inform them as soon as the allegations against Boucher surfaced in 2015. They accused the church of putting their children at risk by waiting until 2017 before going public.
"It was too little, too late," one parishioner said of the effort to make amends. "We saw right away there was something off about [Boucher]. Psychologically, he was not OK."
Some wonder if there could be more victims.
"You never know. And that, as a mother, is horrible," one woman said.
St. John Brébeuf Church in LaSalle did not receive a similar visit from the archbishop.
Last month, the archdiocese announced it had commissioned a retired Quebec Superior Court justice, Pepita Capriolo, to examine how the church handled any concerns or complaints about Boucher.
Capriolo's findings and recommendations are expected to be made public in six months.
Steven said he was upset to hear about the investigation. He had tried to prevent Boucher from being ordained and wished the archdiocese had taken his concerns more seriously.
"This should have been prevented," he said.
Shortly after Boucher's arrest in 2017, the Montreal archdiocese expanded a pilot project that bans priests from being alone with children.
The rules now also extend to laypeople and volunteers. Lépine said he expects the ban will be implemented by every parish in the city by the end of next year.
But A.B. doesn't think that's enough. He launched a lawsuit against the church shortly after Boucher was sentenced.
He hopes it will hold the church accountable, forcing it to make meaningful changes. That includes creating a climate where people speak up if they see or suspect a child is being abused. He also thinks there needs to be better oversight of priests.
Rev. Robert Harris, who was in charge of the Grand Seminary when a complaint about Boucher was allegedly brought to him, did not respond to CBC's request for an interview. He is set to retire later this month in New Brunswick as the bishop of Saint John.
Lépine also declined an interview request about CBC's investigation. Erika Jacinto, a spokesperson for the Montreal archdiocese, said he would comment once the lawsuit is resolved and the results of the independent investigation are made public.
Regardless of the outcome, A.B. said his trust in the church died long ago. He continues to wonder who he might have been, or what he may have accomplished, if Boucher hadn't abused him.
"It's the worst thing that can ever happen to you. It'll take things away from you that you'll never get back."
With files from Anna Sosnowski