Resurrection: The Catholic Church’s New Era of Openness (1/5)

After decades of child abuse scandals, a new generation of Catholic leaders has vowed to turn things around. Meet the new church of zero tolerance. 

Resurrection: The Catholic Church's New Era of Openness

Photos: fzant/iStockphoto / John Sylvester

As a boy, Chris Sherren thought Father George Smith wasn’t just friendly, but exciting. He cracked jokes during his sermons, sang in the hallways and called out greetings to anyone he saw, whether he knew them or not. “He was a happy man,” says Sherren, who grew up in Charlottetown in the late 1990s and attended mass with his family at St. Pius X, where Smith served as associate pastor. “And he did his best to make those around him happy, too.”

When he was 17, Sherren (pictured above) spent a weekend at a religious youth conference where, overcome by what he describes as “the deep experience of God’s presence,” he realized he wanted to be a priest. He spent a year at the University of Prince Edward Island, then trained for seven years in Toronto seminaries before returning to his home parish to be ordained on May 6, 2010. A week later, the 26-year-old and a few friends — all clergy from the diocese — drove to St. Malachy’s Church in Kinkora, P.E.I., where Smith, 72, was then posted. It was the Catholic Year of the Priest, and they had gathered to celebrate, young and old together.

On May 25, the news broke: Smith had been accused of molesting a child in his former Newfoundland Diocese of Corner Brook and Labrador. Sherren, who read about it in the local paper, was shaken. “I’ve known the guy since I was in elementary school,” he says.

The complaint, which stemmed from an incident that occurred in the late 1980s, quickly went national, and parishioners found themselves under intense media scrutiny. It’s a scenario that has repeated itself in Catholic communities throughout the Atlantic provinces. The most notorious case emerged in 1989 when the Catholic religious order that ran Mount Cashel Orphanage in St. John’s, N.L. was accused of the systematic molestation of more than 300 former wards. (The 1992 made-for-TV movie The Boys of St. Vincent was based on this scandal.) To date, tens of millions of dollars in compensation have been paid out to over a hundred Mount Cashel victims. In 2005, the Diocese of Corner Brook and Labrador agreed to a $13 million settlement to 38 complainants who, as minors, had been sexually abused by one of its priests. And in 2009, the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador ruled the Roman Catholic Church was liable for the sexual abuse of eight former altar boys. Immediately following the complaint, George Smith was pulled from his pastoral duties and evicted from the rectory. He later moved in with his sister in Nova Scotia and eventually turned himself in to the RCMP in Corner Brook last December. Following an extensive police investigation, the charges against him total 69 at press time. Currently in a remand facility in St. John’s, he is set to be arraigned this fall. 

Ramona Roberts remem bers sitting in St. Malachy’s with her husband and kids when a church delegate, speaking on behalf of Charlottetown Bishop Richard Grecco, stood up after Sunday mass to read a statement explaining Smith’s sudden absence. Although Smith had served for only a few months at St. Malachy’s, Roberts claims it was painful to see a well-liked community leader become the latest face of a scandal that seems to have no end in sight. Each new crisis, she says, only strengthens the public perception of the Church as a kind of pedophilic cult. “For a Catholic it’s, ‘Oh no, not again!’ For everybody else, it’s just, ‘Here we go again.'”

As with many of these cases, the question on the minds of the area’s parishioners was: How much did the Church know? Having never responded to such concerns before, Sherren faced the first big test of his training and faith only two weeks into his new role as associate pastor at St. Pius X. The incident gave him a chance to talk openly about a subject once characterized by cover-ups, payoffs and PR management. “I listened to those who were outraged and prayed with those who were struggling,” Sherren says. “What most people wanted to do was express how terrible the whole thing was, lament it and discuss where we go from here.”

Next: How the Church is educating priests
and taking action against abusers.

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