It was early December of last year when I heard an extraordinary interview with a Canadian bishop on CBC Radio One, Canada’s premier English-speaking public broadcaster. Extraordinary, because it was thirty minutes long; extraordinary because it was on Sunday Edition, a coveted spot on the award-winning network’s flagship news roundup; and extraordinary most of all because it was a Canadian bishop being interviewed on the subject of clerical sex abuse in a way that was vigorously interrogatory without being adversarial.
Most importantly, the bishop, Thomas Dowd, Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Montreal, was non-defensive, persuasively contrite, uncharacteristically spin-free and transparent in his responses, and genuinely warm and nonjudgmental in his pastoral approach.
Dowd was on air because of the controversy surrounding the allegations, trial, and sentencing of Brian Boucher, a priest-abuser of long standing. Dowd had listened to Boucher’s accusers, believed them, advocated on their behalf, and daily attended Boucher’s trial in order to be with them, the survivors.
It was clear we had crossed a national threshold: a Canadian bishop talking on a secular network about clerical sex abuse in a manner that was as credible as it was humble. And none too soon.
Throughout 2019 the Canadian Catholic Church was rocked by a series of disclosures and investigations that reopened the wounds of clerical sex abuse. In addition to the Boucher trial in Montreal, TVOntario, the provincial public-television broadcaster, aired Prey, a documentary on Basilian priest Hod Marshall, the serial abuser of seventeen minors over a teaching span of thirty-two years in three Ontario cities—Sudbury, Windsor, and Toronto. Oversight by the Congregation of St. Basil was deficient, the legal strategies bereft of a Gospel-inspired justice, the end result demoralizing for all. Marshall confessed prior to his death in 2014 at ninety-two, but the legal wrangling and protracted default maneuvers lingered without a satisfying resolution. Hence, the scorching effect of the documentary.
Meanwhile, in an unrelated development, the Basilian Archbishop of Vancouver, Michael Miller, past president of the University of St. Thomas in Houston, empowered a review committee to publish the names of nine of thirty-six abusers in the archdiocese over the last seventy years. Because of legal challenges, Miller is currently unable to release the entire list but his intention is to do so. Public patience is at a premium, however. Such an episcopal initiative is unprecedented in Canada, although not in other national jurisdictions. What Miller did was to underscore the disturbing reality of episcopal dilatoriness on the clerical sex-abuse file, the failure to have a country-wide strategy of redress, the shameful paucity of data on the national scene, and the lack of resources and effective consulting. Unlike the Catholic Church of England and Wales with its Nolan and Cumberlege Reports, in Ireland with its Ryan and Murphy Reports, and in the United States with its John Jay College of Criminal Justice Report, the Catholic Church in Canada has no broad review encompassing all the regions of the country accumulating statistics essential for an effective response to a pan-national crisis.
This is not to say that the church leadership has been unresponsive. The Winter Commission, established by Alphonsus Penney, the Archbishop of St. John’s in Newfoundland and Labrador, investigated the abuses in 1989–1990 associated with the scandal-ridden Mount Cashel Orphanage under the sponsorship of the Irish Christian Brothers, and as a result of its work he tendered his resignation. Concurrent with the Winter Commission was the Hughes Inquiry, a Royal Commission created by the government that provided a stark indictment of ecclesiastical negligence and the catastrophic collapse of appropriate oversight. Although Penney was not required to step down, his authority was profoundly compromised; in subsequent years, well into his retirement, he would be roundly criticized for his failure to handle Father James Hickey, the notorious pedophile and popular church spokesperson for the 1984 papal visit to Newfoundland.
In 1992, out of the ruins of the Mount Cashel disaster, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) published a collection of materials for diocesan and parish discussion, “Breach of Trust, Breach of Faith,” and a detailed report, From Pain to Hope, containing some fifty recommendations. It was neither timid nor nuanced in acknowledging the abuse that had flourished precisely in the absence of serious protocols, or indeed even pastoral expectations of accountability.
In 2010, Cardinal Thomas C. Collins of the Archdiocese of Toronto, the premier Anglophone prelate in the country, put in place a tightened regime of rules of conduct and reporting. Then, in 2018, the bishops would return with a significant revision of From Pain to Hope titled Protecting Minors from Sexual Abuse: A Call to the Catholic Faithful in Canada for Healing, Reconciliation and Transformation. Individual dioceses issued their own guidelines and procedures to ensure appropriate vigilance. All contributed to the illusion that somehow the Canadian church had escaped the crisis that had consumed other churches in the Catholic communion.