CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

Unfinished Business

Next month marks the 20th anniversary of a pivotal inquiry into sexual abuse by priests. The report of the Winter Commission has been gathering dust for two decades. The five commissioners travelled to every parish where priests abused children, poured through church records, talked to experts and victims, and discovered a hierarchy that had ignored, downplayed or covered up the abuse. The CBC's Deanne Fleet has revisited some of the people involved 20 years later. Sr. Nuala Kenny was one of the commissioners, Bobbie Boland was a member of the Church's social action committee, and Annette Mooney is an active church member who attended the Commission's hearing in Ferryland. Twenty years later, none of the women has forgotten the report. And in the context of continued abuse scandals rocking the Church around the world, each has had a different reaction. Kenny would like the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops to revisit the Winter Commission report and implement its recommendations, Boland has left the Church, and Mooney fears for its future.

"I don't think we're shocked, you know, because that's been the history of our church. Cover it up. All for the sake of Holy Mother the Church. Don't let Holy Mother the Church be tainted. See, that was wrong." - Annette Mooney

"But while the Canadian Church in 1989 to 1992 did phenomenal work, there is this unfinished business that I think is part of why we're still upset and angry today. And why, while the offences have been stemmed, these offences are not new that you're hearing about - the stories of the way they were managed, the betrayal of trust and the failure to protect still are eating at the heart of Catholics." - Sr. Nuala Kenny

  • Reflections on the 20th anniversary by former Commissioner John A. Scott

    Anniversary celebrations deferred... but not yet cancelled.

    This is the 20th anniversary of the Winter Commission Report. A few days ago Deanne Fleet reported the anniversary on radio and TV, and aired an interview with Sr. Nuala Kenney, a member of the Commission who is now encouraging the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops to finish implementing the Report's recommendations. Deanne's report was valuable. Nuala Kenney is making good sense. It is very probable, in my view, that if Church authorities had paid more attention to the Report's findings and recommendations, then the sufferings of another generation of victims might have been avoided, to say nothing of the Church's lost credibility. Nuala is also right to point out that, historically, any real change always starts locally. That is particularly important because the story is not yet finished; how it will end is not yet clear internationally, nationally, or locally where it matters most if any real change is to emerge.

    Deanne summarised the Commission's Report as having found that avoiding scandal had caused the Church's failure to respond properly to the criminal behaviour of some priests, and that the Commission called for "more power to the people". But the Report actually went farther in ways that, I believe, have very practical relevance if we are to stop increasing numbers of victims of sexual and other abuse.

    The central fact is the attack on innocents that appears to go on and on. That is the truth to keep in focus. It is, in the end, irrelevant to point out that abuse happens in other institutions with equal or greater frequency. And, sadly, it is not yet credible for the Pope to ask for forgiveness, as he has recently done. It is not credible because forgiveness only happens when there is accurate recognition of what the sin is. But the Church's attempts at such acknowledgement have too often appeared grudging, qualified, defensive, guardedly worded, and more designed to appease than to assume responsibility or to signal changed behaviour. Comparisons with other institutions and premature pleas for forgiveness reveal a Church that continues to be blind to what, on its own account, makes it different from other institutions.

    Our sin, as I experience it, is not just a violation of trust. All institutions undertake to be trustworthy. But the Church's reluctance to comprehend its sin risks being judged as a cynical repudiation of its claim to be hopeworthy. Does the Church today take seriously its call to share the justified hope on which it was founded? Deanne's report presented Bobbie Boland, a woman disillusioned by the cynicism, who chooses no longer to participate. Sr. Kenny recalled the man who stood up and told the Commission that he could "no longer speak to God" because of what the Church had allowed his nephew to suffer. These witnesses provide compelling evidence that when people can no longer see the hope because cynicism is hiding it, the Church is threatened at its foundations.

    But the evidence can also be found in the pews each Sunday. Deanne's interview with Annette Mooney showed it in the sadness she feels that the Church can no longer give her children access to hope. She continues to participate, as I do; but with a deepening anger shared by others in the pews. We have reason to know that hope is more justified than cynicism, but we can not expect our children to see past the cynicism. We can not presume to expect that, because we know the children are too badly hurt.

    It is the suffering of past and present victims and the prevention of more victims that define the unfinished core of this story. Certainly, Nuala is right that the Commission's Report needs to be revived and its recommendations addressed, tested, and implemented. Twenty years is too long to wait. But beyond that, even if all the safeguards are put in place, the innocents will still be at risk so long as hope surrenders to cynicism.

    Yes, the Report found (Ch. 5) that scandal avoidance had a priority it should not have had; but it also found (Ch. 4) that the denial arose in the context of a failure to take seriously the challenges that Vatican II had put to the Church. In making that further finding, the Winter Commission diagnosed a cancer of underlying, unconscious, unintended, unspoken, drowsy cynicism that, obviously, still threatens us all today. Implementation of the Vatican II vision was marked by too much attention to procedures and committees and democratic gestures. Too little attention was paid to what people needed to do to respond to the Council's call for truth-sharing and renewed life. People did not find their talents engaged or respected. Expectations of a share in renewed responsible leadership and broadly based ecclesiastical service did not materialise.

    Vatican II was not the problem, despite the claims of many who argue that its reforms were too radical. The problem was the cynical, systemic failure to take seriously the Council's call to be hopeful, courageous, and truthful. That failure left many innocents at risk.

    And it continues to be the problem today, not just for the worldwide Church, but for the world itself that urgently needs to find the political imagination and will to take truth seriously if life is to be worth living. Before it's final chapters can be lived or written, the ongoing tragedy of sexual abuse – abuse of innocence – will need to encounter the vital energies released by Vatican II and similar authentic expressions of the deepest human experiences.

    What is to be found in those experiences can begin a renewal in hope. Vatican II said, in essence, that truth trumps cynicism, but that truth in its many forms has to be shared – and not denied or feared or covered up – if it is to do so. Peter, the first Pope, learned that the night he denied Christ three times. Truth, by definition, must compete in front of its culture attentively, candidly, respectfully, and with insistently courageous humility, as the silent Christ did in front of Pilate. Only that way can people grasp truth and survive cynicism. The Church needs to find Peter's courageous wisdom to learn how to recover from its betrayals and act truthfully again.

    Certainly, the Commission's Report needs to be dusted off, and its recommendations implemented. Underpinning the Winter Commission's Report was also the recognition that no one can ever be safe unless cynicism is displaced by truth.

    I think Deanne Fleet deserves credit for her journalism. This story is not yet finished. It is an important story about the vitality of truth and the urgent local need to understand and live it more hopefully so that change can happen. It is a good journalist's job to tell that story truly.

    John A. Scott
    Member of the Winter Commission

  • 20 years later

    The scandal Newfoundland found itself in more than 20 years ago that lead to the Winter Commission, has been repeated in numerous countries around the world even as recently as this year. In 2002, independent researchers commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said a total of 10,667 people accused U.S. priests of child sexual abuse from 1950 through 2002.

    More recently, Ireland has been rocked by revelations included in two reports, one released in May the other in November 2009. The first report, which took nine years to compile, said priests beat and raped children during decades of abuse in Catholic-run institutions. In November, another report into abuse in Dublin from 1975 to 2004 said church authorities covered up widespread cases of child sexual abuse until the mid-1990s.

    Since the start of 2010, at least 300 people in Germany have made allegations of sexual or physical abuse by priests. Claims are being investigated in 18 of Germany's 27 Roman Catholic dioceses.

    And Canada was again in the news when Bishop Raymond Lahey was charged with possession and importation of child pornography. He had overseen a $13 million settlement with abuse victims in the Antigonish diocese in a case dating back to 1950.

    There have also been abuse scandals in Italy, the Netherlands, Austria,, Switzerland and Australia, as well as other countries.


    Reuters Factbox: Roman Catholic Church sex scandals

    Catholic Church sex abuse scandals around the world

  • The backstory

    In 1988, James Hickey pleaded guilty to 20 sexual offences involving male children spanning 17 years within the Archdiocese of St. John's. He was sentenced to five years in prison, which he served in Dorchester, N.B.

    In 1988, John Corrigan pleaded guilty to five charges of gross indecency and two charges of sexual assault against boys from two parishes near St. John's. He was sentenced to five years in prison.

    In 1990, Gordon Walsh was found guilty of one count of gross indecency and one count of indecent assault and was sentenced to eighteen months in prison.

    Anthony Bennett pleaded guilty to one count of gross indecency and received a suspended sentence.

    At the time the report was being prepared, Patrick Slaney was awaiting trial, as was Brendan Foley.

    The Commission of Enquiry was established in May 1989, and asked to look 1) at what factors contributed to the sexual abuse of children by some members of the clergy, and 2) why it took so long before the Church became aware of their deviant behaviour.

  • The Commission's mandate

    Members of the commission: Gordon A. Winter, Nuala P. Kenny, Reverend Everett MacNeil, Frances O'Flaherty, Dr. John A. Scott

    To enquire into factors which might have contributed to te sexual abuse of children by some members of the clergy: which factors may include family background, education lifestyles, mutual support systems, or any other pertinent circumstance.

    To enquire how such behaviour could have gone undetected and unreported for such a long period of time.

    To make recommendations to provide for the spiritual, psychological and social healing of the victims and their families.

    To make recommendations that will ensure that the Church has effective procedures for becoming aware of, reporting and dealing with incidents of deviant behaviour that might occur.

    To make recommendations respecting the selection of candidates for the priesthood, the promotion of wholistic growth of the clergy, the fostering of healthy relationships between clergy and laity and the provision of support for the clergy to help them cope with deep psychological problems.

  • Some of the key findings from the Winter Commission report

    As a result of its investigation the Commission has determined that the Archdiocese was aware of allegations of child sexual abuse by some members of the clergy. Indeed, accusations of child sexual abuse were reporter to officials of the Archdiocese as early as 1975. At that time these officials were advised of complaints against James Hickey; the Vicar General, Monsignor Morrisey, was told by different priests on two separate occasions that allegations had been made.

    The Commission has determined that between 1975 and 1989 the Archdiocesan administration had heard rumours, reports or formal accusations of sexual misconduct between priests and children on many occasions. Nevertheless neither the current nor the previous Archdiocesan administration took decisive or effective steps to investigate further, to halt the abuse, or to inform parishioners of the risk to their children.

    While the local Church's attitude toward the accused was sympathetic and treatment - however ineffectual - was offered, it showed little compassion toward the victims. Church officials aligned themselves with the accused; their response to victims was thus inappropriate and un-Christian, and this compounded the victims' initial sense of betrayal by the Church.

    Serious management errors in response to the initial suspicions of wrongdoing in the 1970s were compounded by continuing inaction. This lack of action also raises questions about the appropriateness of Archbishop Penney's responses in light of the Child Welfare Act then in place. When the accusations could no longer be denied, the Archdiocesan response was weak, defensive and unworthy of the Church.

    The Archdiocese has failed to recognize or to meet this urgent need; the public statements which have so far been issued by the Archdiocese have rather added to the pain. The Archdiocesan response was inappropriate, especially given its pastoral responsibilities to all the people of God. it showed no real leadership but appeared to limit its response to concerns about potential legal liabilities.

  • Some of the key recommendations of the Winter Commission

    - that the Archdiocesan Church formally acknowledge its share of guilt and responsibility, and that the Archdiocesan administration apologize in such a way as to remove any suggestion that the victims were to blame.

    - that the Archdiocese of St. John's provide reasonable monetary compensation to the victims;

    - that the Archdiocese establish immediately, and fund, a Victims Advocacy Board;

    - that the Board be composed of knowledgeable and concerned members of the community, operating at arm's length from Church administration.

    - that the Board adjudicate appropriate levels of monetary compensation for victims seeking this remedy;

    - that the Board's mandate be for a limited time based on an assessment of the number of known and possible victims of the present crisis.

    - that the Archdiocese, through the Catholic Education Council, develop and implement in all schools, programmes which appropriately address sexuality, including child sexual abuse.

    - that the Family Life Commission teach community development techniques at the parish and community level so that members of the local church feel empowered to initiate changes which will promote healing and growth

    - that the Archdiocese develop and deliver public programmes aimed at awareness of the problems of child sexual abuse.

    - that a pastoral responses not overshadowed by concerns for legal liabilities be used to address any future incident so child sexual abuse.

    - that the Archbishop ask the Archdiocesan Interdisciplinary Committee on Sexual Abuse to initiate an investigation of convicted priests to determine whether they should be retired or have canonical penalties imposed;

    - that in the event a convicted priest is not retired or had canonical penalties imposed, there be a periodic and mandatory re-assessment of his ministry in consultation with appropriate parish councils;

    - that convicted priests never be assigned to pastoral responsibilities in a parish unless the parish council is informed and consulted about the assignment;

    - that convicted priests never be given a pastoral responsibility for children.

    - that to restore a level of health and vitality to the Presbyterium, all priests active in the ministry throughout the Arhcdiocese be required to take a leave of at least six months duration

    - that priests be required to take a full leave during every seventh year of ministry.

    - that the Archbishop press the CCCB to initiate and support the development of a national programme of research and study which might contribute to the development of the Church's theology of sexuality.

    - that the Archbishop join with other bishops across Canada to address fully, directly, honestly and without reservation questions relating to the probelmatic link between celibacy and the ministerial priesthood.

  • The aftermath

    Immediately after the report's release, Archbishop Alphonsus Penney apologized to the victims of sexual abuse by parish priests, saying they were blameless. He then offered his resignation.

    The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops released a report in 1992 called From Pain to Hope, which was reviewed in 2003. After it's revision, the Conference published a document in 2007 called Orientations that would help Catholic dioceses update their protocols for prevention of sexual abuse. Sr. Nuala Kenny maintains that while the 1992 report implemented some of the recommendations from the Winter Commission, such as screening for new priests, the report didn't touch what she calls the systemic issues.

    Canadian Council of Catholic Bishops

    The legacy of sexual abuse by James Hickey, who passed away in 1992, continued to wind through the court system even in recent times. In 2009 for example, the Roman Catholic Church in St. John's was found liable for the sexual abuse of eight altar boys in the late 1970s by Hickey.

    Catholic Church in St. John's found liable for abuse of 8 altar boys