Sask. Catholic churches delay, reject calls to release internal files on abuser priests

Joey Basaraba, who says he was sexually abused for years starting at age six by two Prince Albert, Sask., priests, is joining renewed national calls for church transparency.

Calls to release internal church records on abuse, residential schools grow following Kamloops revelations

Joey Basaraba is one of those calling for Saskatchewan Catholic officials to release all records with the names of abuser priests. Basaraba says he was repeatedly sexually assaulted by a pair of Prince Albert priests starting at age six. (Jason Warick/CBC)

Warning: This story contains details readers may find distressing.

Joey Basaraba cries randomly while sitting in his Saskatoon apartment, in the shower or out walking. He can't remember the last time he slept through the night.

"I take it one day at a time," Basaraba said in an interview this week.

Basaraba, who says he was sexually abused for years starting at age six by two Prince Albert, Sask., priests, is joining the renewed national calls for church transparency after the discovery of what are believed to be the unmarked graves of 215 children at a Catholic residential school site in Kamloops, B.C.

"I wondered, 'How could anyone do these things to kids?'" Basaraba said. "But I also wonder, 'What kind of sick person covers this stuff up?'"

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde and others are urging the church to release all records relating to residential schools. Critics like Basaraba are also calling on the church to disclose all records of abuser priests and to stop fighting survivors in court.

Basaraba is Indigenous but attended a non-residential school, so he wasn't part of the national survivors' settlement program. Basaraba wants compensation for the lifetime of pain caused by the priests, but he says his top priority is the truth.

Joey Basaraba, now 55, says he was abused repeatedly by two Prince Albert, Sask., priests, starting at age six. He failed Grade 1 twice, dropped out of school, and never learned to read or write. (Submitted by Joey Basaraba)

He wants the church to publicly admit how many abusers it's hidden from public view over the years. He said there will be no closure, no reconciliation, until the church tells everyone the truth.

"I want to believe in God, I want to get past this. But how can I?" he said.

Basaraba has been fighting the Roman Catholic diocese of Prince Albert in court for eight years. He said no settlement has been reached and no trial date has been set.

In its statement of defence, the diocese doesn't deny the abuse occurred. Instead, it says the lawsuit should be rejected because Basaraba took too long to come forward, calling it an "inordinate and excessive delay." The statement also says only the priests, who are deceased, bear any responsibility, not the diocese.

'Significant legacy' of abuse: archbishop

In an interview this week, a Prince Albert church official said a committee has been compiling the church's internal records of abuser priests. It's unclear whether it will be made public. Prince Albert is getting a new bishop this month.

"We are going to let the new bishop deal with these documents as he sees fit," said the official, who estimated a decision on public disclosure will be made in the next two to three weeks.

Other Saskatchewan dioceses and Catholic religious orders have promised to release details such as the names of abuser priests and how the cases were handled.

Saskatoon officials said the information would be released this spring, but now say it should be in the "near future."

In Regina, Archbishop Don Bolen agreed in 2019 to release the records. He said that changed after consulting with victims, and the names will not be made public.

Regina Roman Catholic Archbishop Don Bolen says the names of abuser priests will not be made public at this time, but said 'there is a significant legacy of clergy sexual abuse in the archdiocese, and ... every deanery, every major parish, is a part of that legacy.' (Radio-Canada/CBC)

But in an email Wednesday, Bolen hinted at the magnitude of the damage.

"There is a significant legacy of clergy sexual abuse in the archdiocese, and … every deanery, every major parish, is a part of that legacy," Bolen wrote.

Not just a list: survivor

One of those Regina victims, Pamela Walsh, said it's not just about a list of names.

"Transparency is about clear policies, structures, recourse," she wrote in an email.

"No longer is it acceptable to investigate the victim to see if there is anything that can trip them up. It is now about looking at the facts of the abuse. It is about showing compassion and understanding when a person does come forward.

"It is about change at the deepest level of how victims are responded to, no longer as garbage, but as deeply wounded people, wounds they didn't cause."

She said Bolen has done a lot to walk together with victims, including special prayer services. There's also a civilian oversight board for any complaints, and the diocese hired an independent counsellor for victims to access free of charge, whether they are still church members or not.

None of the national Catholic orders which ran the residential schools on behalf of the government have released their records of abuser priests and staff.

The Jesuits of Canada said they would release the records in January, then in the spring. An official said Wednesday he's now not sure when it will happen.

In the U.S., police and prosecutors have forced Catholic officials to open their archives of turn over records of any sexual assault or other criminal acts. That hasn't happened in Canada.

Pope Francis, seen here on a visit to Thailand, removed the 'pontifical secrecy' rule around priest sex abuse cases nearly two years ago. Since then, hundreds of priests have been named in documents released in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere. Vancouver is the only diocese in Canada to disclose such information. (Photo by Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images) (Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images)

Officials with Saskatoon and Regina police, as well as Saskatchewan Justice, all say they don't generally disclose details of investigations unless charges are laid. A Saskatchewan RCMP official said they "support survivors in their calls seeking justice and healing" but aren't aware of any efforts to seek church records.

As for Joey Basaraba, he said the Kamloops revelation made him sick, but also strengthened his resolve. He said full disclosure will help him heal, but it could also prevent others from being harmed.

"I'm not giving up on this," he said. "I'm not walking away."

Support is available to anyone affected by their experience at residential schools and to those who are triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support to former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.