A groundbreaking report by an Archdiocese of Vancouver review committee on clerical sexual abuse has concluded that 26 sexual assaults of minors “likely occurred” in the diocese since 1950 and identifies nine priests who were criminally convicted, named in lawsuits or were the subject of other public cases.
The report says several more abuser priests are known but not yet named due to privacy law restrictions that the archdiocese is working to overcome. In addition, the report cites 10 consensual sexual relationships involving priests “where the imbalance of power made them likely to be abusive.”
The 12-page report, released Nov. 22, contains 31 recommendations and responses from the archdiocese. The culmination of a 13-month study into abuse cases occurring in the archdiocese since 1950, it is the first report of its kind released by any diocese in Canada.
Vancouver Archbishop J. Michael Miller accepted all the committee’s recommendations and launched an implementation group to work out the practical details for carrying out the recommendations.
“I realize that no expression of regret can repair the horror of what happened,” Miller wrote in a pastoral letter that accompanied the report.
“Although nothing can undo the wrong that was done to you, I nonetheless wish to offer each of you my heartfelt apology for the trauma, the violation in body and soul, and the sense of betrayal and abandonment by the Church that you feel. For those occasions when we failed to protect you or when we were more concerned with the Church’s reputation than with your suffering, I am truly sorry and ask for your forgiveness as I strive to make amends and bind your wounds.”
Miller said it has taken the global Catholic Church “far too long” to address the “particularly devastating consequences” of abuse by priests.
In the wake of abuse scandals in the United States, and after urging from abuse survivors and justice activists, Miller announced in 2018 he would investigate his archdiocese’s history of dealing with abuse. The process took 13 months.
The nine priests named in the report were alleged to have assaulted minors over a span of about 50 years beginning in the 1950s. Five of the nine are dead. One case involved a priest who served three months in an Ontario jail for gross indecency and subsequently served as a priest in Vancouver for three years before “he left abruptly” and returned to Ontario.
Although the archdiocese knows of many other priests who have assaulted children, it has not named them due to privacy laws and other impediments. According to the report, lawyers are now “working with experts from across the country to find legal means” to publicize names of priests whose guilt is “morally certain.”
The report points out that Canadian laws on privacy protection are more restrictive than American law, which permits publishing names of priests who are “credibly accused.”
“We have to figure out a way to balance our legal obligations with the public’s desire to know,” said Mary Margaret MacKinnon, an lawyer for the archdiocese.
The seven-woman, six-man committee included five lawyers, two clergy, one religious sister, a psychologist, two prison chaplains, a hospital chaplain, an elementary school teacher, and a ministry co-ordinator. Four members were victims of clergy abuse.
The committee discussed 36 cases of abuse by clergy — 26 involving abuse of a minor, seven dealing with abuse of an adult, and three concerning priests who had fathered children. In July 13 the committee forwarded 31 recommendations to Miller.
The report said that, for one committee member, the “most devastating realizations” were that victims who had come forward before the early 1990s were made to sign confidentiality agreements, “which meant that their stories were not made public.”
Barred from speaking out against abusive priests, “there are still people in this archdiocese who continue to suffer in silence, keeping unhealthy secrets to themselves, living in shame that is not theirs to hold, believing they are alone and believing they are the only ones who have suffered such violation and degradation at the hands of a particular priest,” said the report.
“This has to stop and this has to stop now.”
The archdiocese has not required confidentiality agreements since the early 1990s and has waived any previously signed agreements.
The committee recommended: establishment of an independent office for receiving allegations of sexual abuse; publishing the names and photos of clerics who are convicted, found “credibly accused” or have admitted to abuse; and requiring all people who work with children (religious or lay) to undergo safe environment training on recognizing and reporting inappropriate behaviour.
The recommendations also call for mandatory performance reviews for all priests in the archdiocese; a study of seminary training and screening; ongoing healing and reconciliation opportunities for victims; and a Canada-wide registry of priests with credible accusations against them.
The report includes archdiocesan responses to each recommendation, some of which (such as establishing an anonymous abuse reporting phone line) have already been implemented. Most have deadlines of next year, while others “require more time and reflection before being acted upon,” said the archbishop.
MacKinnon called the review process a challenging but “transformative” experience. By discussing clergy abuse cases with 12 people holding divergent opinions, “we were able to see things from different perspectives and understand how people felt and what needed to change,” she said in an interview with The B.C. Catholic.
“There was a huge amount of respect, compassion and goodwill in the room and that resulted in some fundamentally directive shifts.”
Those shifts include hiring independent investigators to study all allegations of sexual abuse by clergy; encouraging victims to speak out rather than suffer in silence; and employing a lay person rather than a priest to receive abuse allegations.
MacKinnon said it is archdiocesan policy to notify police when anyone presents an abuse allegation.
“If people are listening who have been damaged or injured by the Church, I think they have to know that there is a huge willingness to hear their voices and attempt to work with them to make the system a better system and help them in a real way,” said MacKinnon.
Miller has been appointed chair of a national bishops committee on preventing clerical abuse. He will head the new Standing Committee for Responsible Ministry and the Protection of Minors and Vulnerable Persons, created by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops to advise on best practices for safeguarding the vulnerable and implementing CCCB guidelines in its national guidelines, Protecting Minors from Sexual Abuse, released last year.