The Current

To tackle sexual abuse, Catholic Church must match words with concrete action: survivor

Pope Francis has summoned bishops to an unprecedented summit designed to tackle sexual abuse in the priesthood, a persisting problem that has shaken the faith of Catholics globally. We look at policies recently enacted in Canada, which are being discussed at the summit as a way to tackle what the Pope has called "the urgent challenge of our time."

As Pope hosts Vatican summit, survivor Bob McCabe says 'apologies are not enough'

Bob McCabe in June 2017. He was sexually abused by a Toronto priest in the early 1960s. (Submitted by Bob McCabe)

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A Vatican summit to tackle sexual abuse won't succeed unless the Catholic Church matches its words with concrete action, one survivor says.

"You can't, by committee, change the mind of an abuser. You can't, by committee, change the thinking of a predator, and that's what these priests are," Bob McCabe told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

McCabe was 11 years old when he was sexually abused by his parish priest in Toronto in 1963. More than half a century later, he brought a case against the diocese. 

The archdiocese "admitted that it had taken place ... and it should not have happened," he said, but noted the church has appealed how much damages should be awarded.

"Apologies are not enough ... I feel the church has given up the right to apologize anymore," McCabe said of the summit.

"What they need to do is make amends … to gain forgiveness is one thing but that also means that your actions have to match your words."

Pope Francis has summoned bishops to a four-day summit in Rome to discuss combating sexual abuse in the priesthood — a persistent problem that has shaken the faith of Catholics around the world.

Ahead of unprecedented Vatican summit, abuse survivors share their harrowing stories

4 years ago
Duration 5:22
Ahead of the Pope’s unprecedented global summit on preventing abuse of minors in the Catholic Church, The National speaks to survivors taking their heartbreaking stories straight to the Vatican.

Among the proposals considered by the assembled clergy will be a document released last year by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. The 184-page report lays out 69 recommendations to protect children from sexual abuse, including tougher background checks, and a requirement that bishops immediately report allegations to Rome, and appoint a delegate to investigate.

McCabe described it as a "fabulous document that hopefully down the road will reduce the risk ... of a child, a minor being sexually abused."

The document, however, is overly clinical and does not include the voice of survivors, he said.

"At one point in the document, it indicates that it's difficult for a bishop to hear the circumstances of a victim's peril, or a victim's experience in sex abuse."

But for victims, he said "it goes a lot farther than just being difficult, it totally annihilates everything that is in existence for a child. It annihilated my life."

McCabe in the CBC's Kitchener studio. It was 30 years before he spoke of the abuse he suffered as a teen. (Submitted by Bob McCabe)

'I was a tornado in the lives of everyone'

It was almost 30 years before McCabe told anyone about the abuse he had suffered, spending those decades living with the toll of the trauma.

"I was a tornado in the lives of everyone that I came in touch with," he said.

He told Tremonti that he had "three marriages, children that I basically abandoned and ... alcohol was used every day."

When he stopped drinking in 2010, his recovery prompted him to face the abuse.

In 2014, he filed a statement of claim against the diocese, because the priest who abused him had died. It went to court in 2017.

Despite taking responsibility, the church appealed the decision to award damages, meaning he is still waiting on a ruling by the Ontario Court  of Appeal.

"My experience is once this went to trial, the church says: 'Yeah, we're really sorry that happened,' and they meant it," he said.

"But once they handed it over, the church, in my experience, in my view, in my opinion, it hides behind the lawyers saying: 'Well, there's nothing we can do. It's in the lawyers' hands.'"

Pope Francis has referred sexual abuse in the priesthood as 'the urgent challenge of our time.' (Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images)

People assume 'you've been complicit in abuse'

A lack of transparency in the church could be driven by a desire from some priests to protect the institution and its assets, said Father Michael Bechard, director of the office of the campus ministry at King's University, in London, Ont.

That secrecy damaged the perception of the clergy, and their ability to help their communities.

"You walk into a room and the first thing that assumed, often, as a priest now is that somehow you've either been engaged or you've been complicit in abuse," he told Tremonti.

He said the church needs to discuss human sexuality more honestly, as well as stopping the demonisation of gay and lesbian people, and making clear "distinctions between homosexuality and the scourge of pedophilia in our churches."

The complexity of the institution could make for slow progress, he warned.

"In the same way that it would take a large boat, or a large ship on the ocean [time] to turn, just because of its sheer size … any sort of movement [for the church] is also going to be one that takes place over time."

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Sarah-Joyce Battersby and Ines Colabrese.