Windsor woman calls Pope's vows a 'failure,' one year after sex abuse summit

A Windsor, Ont. woman and a group of victims of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic clergy are heading to Rome to take stock of promises made a year ago by Pope Francis, to end sexual abuse in the church and make the subject a priority.

SNAP founder Brenda Brunelle is part of a group heading to Rome to voice concerns about sexual abuse

Brenda Brunelle of Windsor is a sexual abuse survivor and founder of a survivor advocacy group. She and a few members of the group are heading to Rome for the anniversary of Pope Francis' summit on sexual abuse by clergy members. (Laura Clementson/CBC)

It's been about one year since Pope Francis vowed to confront sexual abusers in the Catholic church with "the wrath of God," end the coverups by their superiors and prioritize the victims of this "brazen, aggressive and destructive evil."

Now, a Windsor, Ont. woman and a group of victims of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic clergy are heading back to Rome to take stock of the promises made at last year's summit on the issue. 

"[Pope Francis] came out strong. He came out hard, with a lot of promises to the world that he was going to put an end to this and put safety measures into place to ensure that there was no more — or to prevent future coverups," said Brenda Brunelle, who was abused from age 12.

"Speaking as a survivor and an advocate for those abused by priests, I'm afraid to say that my report card — our report — card is a failure." 

Brunelle founded the southwestern Ontario chapter of the advocacy group called Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests [SNAP]. A few SNAP members are accompanying Brunelle to Rome, where they hope to voice their concerns about what has changed since last year's summit — or what hasn't. 

Last February, the Pope addressed 190 Catholic bishops and religious superiors who were summoned to Rome after abuse scandals sparked a credibility crisis in the Catholic hierarchy and in Francis' own leadership. 

Pope Francis attends a penitential liturgy at the Vatican, Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019. The pontiff hosted a four-day summit on preventing clergy sexual abuse, a high-stakes meeting designed to impress on Catholic bishops around the world that the problem is global and that there are consequences if they cover it up. (Vincenzo Pinto/Pool Photo Via AP)

During the four-day meeting, Pope Francis offered an eight-point pledge of priorities going forward, calling for a change in the church's defensive mentality and a vow to never again cover up cases. Victims, he said, must take centre stage, while priests must undergo a continuing path of purity with the "holy fear of God" guiding the examination of their own failures.

"We haven't seen any concise action," said Brunelle. "What we've had were a lot of promises, a lot of hope given, but the reality is we're not seeing a lot of action coming from within the church."

Brunelle said her group reached out to Canadian bishops, hoping to attend their annual assembly. The goal was to find out what bishops are doing in their local dioceses to address the issues. Brunelle said her group was told not to attend, and instead write letters to their local bishops. 

"We're not seeing a lot of action coming from within the church," said Brunelle, explaining that more has been done by journalists and advocacy groups to shine light on sexual abuse scandals within the church. 

In December 2019, SNAP released a list of names of priests in the London diocese who were charged, convicted or linked to victims who made allegations and successfully sued or settled with the church for amounts of more than $50,000 — and only those who preyed on minors.

In some cases, the allegations were never tested in court. In other cases, victims signed non-disclosure agreements, preventing the details from being made public.

"It can no longer be hidden and covered up," said Brunelle. 

"I think now the problem is how far they're going to go in putting into law and putting into practice what they're saying to satisfy the lay people, the world, survivors, believers of the faith — that they in fact mean what they say, and until we see that concise action, I think it will always remain a question mark."