The Sunday Edition

Meet the Catholic bishop who brought a pedophile priest to justice

Thomas Dowd heard rumours that a priest named Brian Boucher had sexually abused children in Montreal. He investigated, found victims, brought evidence to police and was instrumental in Boucher being convicted and sentenced earlier this year to eight years in prison. What’s most notable about Thomas Dowd is that he, himself, is a Catholic Church bishop — an authority figure in a church that has long been accused of hushing up the crimes of its clergy, protecting the institution at the expense of its flock.
The auxiliary bishop and vicar-general of the Montreal archdiocese, Thomas Dowd. (CBC)
Listen33:55

Last January, a priest named Brian Boucher was convicted of sexually abusing two children in two different Montreal parishes. He was sentenced to eight years in prison. 

Reverend Boucher had been a priest in the Montreal area for 20 years. For almost as long, there had been rumours about him — even warnings. The fact that word of his crimes even made it to the police is largely the work of one man — himself a bishop. 

Bishop Thomas Dowd started hearing rumours about Boucher after joining the Montreal diocese in 2011. He made it his mission to investigate and take action.

Dowd found one of Boucher's victims, accompanied him to the police station and presented the police with a 250 page report of his own findings. 

Dowd was made a bishop in 2011, at the age of 40, making him the second-youngest bishop in the world at the time. Today he is Auxiliary Bishop of Montreal.

Thomas Dowd's interview has been edited and condensed. To hear the full interview, click 'listen' above.


Gillian Findlay: The day Brian Boucher was sentenced in Montreal you made an emotional and passionate statement to the media. "How could you betray the trust of hundreds of people, discredit the work of other priests and shame the church?" you asked. Tell me about that day and how it felt to have one of your own so discredited.

Bishop Thomas Dowd: I actually participated in the trial. I was there for every day of the trial. I wasn't going to miss a moment of it. It was the culmination of a lot of work, and certainly a time of great emotion for me.

When did you first become aware that he had been sexually abusing children?

It was actually an initial contact I had with a young man. I can't get too much into it because it is still a police investigation, which is sealed. 

But I first encountered a young man who wanted to speak with me about his relationship with Brian Boucher. It didn't have to do with sex abuse, but as we were there I said, "You know, I hate to have to do this, but given the context we're in, there are some questions I just need to ask you."

As I started to ask him just some very basic things about their relationship, he said to me, "I don't want to talk about anything that has to do with sexuality." So he actually shut down the conversation, but by shutting it down it made me obviously wonder a great deal. That was the initial point of my in-depth investigation.

I spoke with different people, and one led to another, and eventually I found myself before an actual victim who was willing to say something, and he's the one that I went to the police with.

Now, Boucher had been a priest for decades in Montreal. Why had this information not come out before?

The victim himself had said that he didn't want to tell anyone until someone in authority came to him. When we met, he said to me, "This is my moment." He and his sister had talked about it years before, but they were worried what the reaction would be within their family. 

And as he told you the story of what had happened, what was your reaction?

It was devastating. I felt, first of all, great compassion for him. And honestly, great admiration for his courage. And after he finished telling me the story we had this pause, and I just looked at him, and I said, "I believe you."

Given the length of Boucher's tenure, and given the rumors that had been around for a long time, are you convinced that there aren't more victims out there.

It's possible. In my own investigation, [I really] tried to be as thorough as possible. My goal was not to find evidence to convict him. I was kind of hoping that I'd be able to rule out the possibility that he was a perpetrator. But that's not where it went, and you have to follow the evidence where it goes.

When you spoke to the media that day after Boucher's sentencing, you alluded to demons in your own past when you were a boy. What happened to you?

When I was 11 years old, I was off at a summer camp. It was a sleep-away camp in Europe. While I was there I went through what I have referred to as three weeks of hell. 

It was definitely one of the most difficult periods of my life. First of all, the camp was in a different language that I didn't speak. I was the foreign kid, very isolated.

But were you abused there?

Yeah. Neglect, bullying, some other things that I'd rather not get into detail on. 

But as challenging as that was, I will be honest that in many ways the more difficult aspect was that I approached the leaders of the camp — this one leader in particular who was in charge — and they really didn't do anything. The person in charge had a drinking problem. She would drink in front of me while I was talking with her.

That experience was part of the reason why, in the Brian Boucher case, I just couldn't let go. I couldn't let go.

You have said that the Catholic Church has been given a unique opportunity now to advocate for victims of abuse, but that it requires the bishops and the church to get their house in order. Is that happening?

The church is a global institution. In Canada and in North America we're much more attuned to these questions of sex abuse in the church and outside of it. But there are parts of the world where I've heard people say, "Well, that doesn't happen in our country." I think it probably does. So this inability, unwillingness, to see is very challenging. 

If the church in Canada can develop a universal approach that will be applied in Canada and in Africa and in Asia and everywhere, then we have the opportunity to be that agent of change. But for that to happen there needs to be trust. There needs to be credibility. 

Is there trust? Is there credibility now?

Well, certainly that credibility, and that trust, are gravely wounded. But I do think that people want to be able to trust. It's not something that's going to come automatically because you've got the title of Bishop or priest or nun. It's going to happen because we we demonstrate that we're walking the walk.

You mentioned trust and part of trust is transparency and part of trust is accountability. So many other countries are ahead of Canada on this. There have been public inquiries into clergy sexual abuse in Australia and Ireland. In the United States, there is now a publicly accessible database of Catholic clergy acknowledged by their own church as credibly accused. There's 6,800 names on that list now. And yet that kind of accountability is not happening in Canada yet. Why not? 

It's a good question. I haven't honestly investigated that much myself. I have been trying to work much more on the one-on-one basis with individual victims.

I'm certainly in favour of having policies that bring us to transparency. I would want to do so in a way that if someone, for example, was falsely accused, I would want to make sure that that was part of the transparent dimension as well. Because as you can imagine, a false accusation in this area whether it's a priest or a school teacher or anyone else, it's devastating. 

And so I think there's a lot of caution around that. But to the extent that it can help restore that credibility in that faith … it's something that I think we can explore. 

You say your faith is strong, but many Catholics through this period have fallen away from the church and have lost their faith in it. What do you say to those people?

I would start by saying that I understand. In my experience, speaking with persons who tell me that, there's often a lot of anger there. Anger is a reaction to something that we perceive as wrong, something we experience as wrong.

I can't offer platitudes towards them. I just want to say we're here and if you want to talk, we'll talk. If you want to share, we'll share. And God be with you.

Click 'listen' above to hear the interview.

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