Montreal priests to be prohibited from being alone with children

The Catholic Church of Montreal plans to bar priests, volunteers and all those involved in faith education from being alone with children.

Pilot project known as 'Responsible Pastoral Ministry' scheduled to begin later this year

François Sarrazin, chancellor of the Montreal Archdiocese, says a pilot project to prevent priests and volunteers working with churches from being alone with children is about protecting victims and protecting the church. (CBC)

The Catholic Church of Montreal plans to bar priests, volunteers and all those involved in faith education from being alone with children.

François Sarrazin, chancellor of the Montreal Archdiocese, said a pilot project — to begin in 10 churches later this year — is a preventative measure and that churches in other provinces including Ontario have already implemented similar policies.

"It's important that the church shows it's making an effort and that our society can have confidence in the church and can say 'they did their homework, now they're credible,'" he said.

The pilot will involve French-speaking, English-speaking and parishes from various cultural communities that volunteer to participate and diocesan offices and services.

Sarrazin said it's important to protect not just children, but all vulnerable people who seek out pastoral care, including the elderly.

'Protecting the church'

The measure is part of a policy the archdiocese is calling "Responsible Pastoral Ministry."

Sarrazin said while the church has been rocked in recent years by allegations of sexual abuse of children, those allegations aren't always founded.

"To give [their story] importance, a child can give an account of an incident that isn't always true," he said.

For that reason, the policy is already in place, but in an unofficial capacity, Sarrazin said.

When asked to clarify the reasons behind the policy, Sarrazin named three.

"Protecting victims, protecting families, protecting the church," he said.

Sarrazin told Radio-Canada a child would be accompanied by their parents for rites such as confession. The parents would be sitting further away, but would still be able to see their child.

'Damage control,' victims' group says

Quebec's Association of Victims of Priests calls the move too little, too late.

"This is damage control. The church has suffered a lot of flak because of its inaction about pedophile priests. But this is just a baby step. It needs to do an awful lot more," said Carlo Tarini, a spokesman for the group.

John Zucchi, a professor in the department of history and classical studies at Montreal's McGill University, said the pilot project is a first step.

"Many of these victims have a very painful past and suffered unjustly ... I understand their frustration ... The local diocese is going to take this one step at a time. If these guidelines are not enough, I'm sure there will be more action."

He added that the Vatican will be watching closely.

"Historically, there have been people, religious people, who have called for safeguards — it's come from the grassroots. But this time here in particular it's coming from Rome — the Vatican, Pope Benedict and now Pope Francis who pushed for all types of safeguards. The dioceses around the world have been following on these indications from Rome."

with files from Alison Northcott and Justin Hayward