Nfld. & Labrador·Point of View

The pedestals were washed away: The sex abuse scandals that rocked the church in N.L.

It started with Father Jim Hickey. Then came Mount Cashel. Three decades later, veteran journalist Roger Bill looks back.

There was a day of reckoning, but it was a winding road that led to it

The Basilica of St. John the Baptist dominates the St. John's skyline. The status of the church, though, has changed. (Submitted by Alexandra Antle )

It was like a hurricane. 

But not just the front of the storm, where the skies darken and the wind gathers strength. The back of the hurricane — the part that follows the brief tranquility of the eye when the wind suddenly returns, howling and bending the trees and the rain comes down in sheets again — was even more devastating. 

The front edge of the hurricane struck in January 1988 with the arrest of a Catholic priest, Father Jim Hickey. He was charged with 20 counts of sexually assaulting young boys. Then came the arrests and charges against Father Corrigan, Father Foley, and more. 

Father Jim Hickey was one of the most prominent figures in the Roman Catholic Church in Newfoundland and Labrador. He pleaded guilty in 1988 to sexually assaulting boys. (CBC)

A writer for the Chicago Tribune called it a "crack in a horrible dike." In St. John's, where the Catholic Church dominated not only the sacred but the secular life of the city, the shock was palpable.

Hickey, the pedophile priest who sent acquaintances and even some victims a Christmas card featuring a photo of him schmoozing with Prince Charles and Princess Diana, was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison.

Others followed, but the Catholic Church seemed to have weathered the storm. A few bad apples and all of that.

Father Jim Hickey hosted Prince Charles and Princess Diana at a youth event during a royal visit to St. John's in 1983. (CBC)

The black-robed guys in charge of the salvation business at the Basilica of St. John the Baptist said soothing things as the eye of the storm settled over St. John's.

'A flurry of activity with momentous consequences'

Then, 30 years ago, in February, 1989 the back of the hurricane struck. 

The cover-up of sexual abuse at Mount Cashel orphanage came to an end. It started back in 1975 when the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary investigated complaints about physical and sexual abuse of boys by members of the Irish Christian Brothers who ran the orphanage.

The Mount Cashel orphanage closed in 1990, and was later demolished. A Sobeys supermarket and a subdivision now fill its grounds. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

A deal was made. Charges were not laid.

The brothers quietly left town.

Instead the Catholic community celebrated a century of service by the Catholic lay order in a book ironically titled The Brothers Are Coming.

The reason the storm raged on was because a cop said he didn't want to be part of a different cover-up. Sgt. Art Pike disclosed the cover-up during a 1979 judicial inquiry into the leaking of a police report in a matter involving a fire in a provincial cabinet minister's apartment, and allegations of a bribe involving a construction contract. 

Around the same time a criminal investigation into abuse at Mount Cashel was shut down, the local Catholic community celebrated the presence of the Christian Brothers with a special book. (CBC)

Pike testified that he leaked the police report because he feared it would be buried like the 1975 sexual abuse investigation at the Mount Cashel orphanage. Ten years later, a CBC reporter stood in front of Mount Cashel orphanage and reminded viewers of Pike's decade-old testimony.

The next day, the CBC report was the subject of a discussion on a VOCM open line radio program. 

Carmel Mahoney, the wife of Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court justice John Mahoney, heard the discussion. She called her husband in his chambers and asked about the cover-up.

Then the judge called Robert Hyslop, the associate deputy attorney general, and asked what he knew about a cover-up. That call led Hyslop to engage in what a judicial inquiry later described as "a flurry of activity with momentous consequences." 

Files retrieved, case reopened

Hyslop retrieved files. He said they contained evidence of sexual abuse by three Christian Brothers on a "horrifying scale."

If you Google 'Hughes Inquiry Mount Cashel' you will find the inquiry report. On page 179 of Vol. 1, you can see the steps Hyslop took as the investigation was reopened.

As the 30th anniversary of the re-opening of the investigation is marked, there will be reports about the numbers of convictions and financial settlements. The CBC is rebroadcasting some of its decades-old award-winning reportage.

Watch The Unforgiven, a 1994 documentary reported by Deanne Fleet for the CBC series Soundings

Someone should recall the coverage of the scandal by the feisty weekly newspaper in St. John's, The Sunday Express, which largely sat out coverage of the front end of the hurricane, but made up for it when the back end struck.

Expect to hear from some of the victims and be reminded that some of them never made it.

Three brothers, Bobby, Greg and Darren Connors, were victims. Greg was 11 years old in 1975. He told the police that one Christian Brother "would sit down on the bed and feel my bird inside my pyjama pants."

Greg and his brother Darren both committed suicide.

Hopefully what will never be forgotten are the words of Supreme Court Justice Leo Barry at the sentencing of Brother Doug Kenny, the superintendent at Mount Cashel orphanage from 1971 to 1976.

Doug Kenny, the former superintendent of Mount Cashel Orphanage, was one of nine Christian Brothers convicted after the scandal broke in 1989. (CBC)

Kenny was convicted of assaulting seven boys at the orphanage, prompting Barry to observe, "He preyed in a calculated manner, with utter disregard for their psychological well-being, upon the bodies of young, often-orphan boys who were completely within his control when he was supposed to be looking after their welfare. If anything is the epitome of evil, it is this."

After the storm passed the orphanage was gone, but the Basilica remained.

It was different though.

The pedestals the priests used to stand on had been washed away.

Three decades ago, a police investigation into sexual abuse at the Mount Cashel Orphanage was reopened. We return to a story that is still unresolved in important ways. 7:53

Read more stories from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Roger Bill


Roger Bill is a former CBC Radio journalist.