Resurrection: The Catholic Church’s New Era of Openness

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. 

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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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Photo: fzant/iStockphoto / John Sylvester 

Like many Catholics, Sherren has had to work through his own emotions about the sex-abuse scandals. “I haven’t lost faith in God or had doubts,” he says. “But hearing about priests who engaged in sexual misconduct makes me angry. Father Smith was always kind to me, but maintaining charity towards the sinner is difficult when it’s something like that.”

He is, however, optimistic. He points to Grecco’s response – the prelate acted within 24 hours of getting word of the accusation against Smith – as an example of the Church’s more transparent and lightning-quick approach. At one time, victims were silenced, abusers were shuffled from post to post (giving them more opportunities to offend) and the hierarchy blamed everyone but itself. But over the last two decades, Canada’s Catholic dioceses have built a countrywide framework for educating priests about sexual abuse and embraced stricter protocols against abusers. This strategy was largely spawned by a 1992 document, “From Pain to Hope,” commissioned by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, which demanded changes to how the Church addressed misconduct in its ranks. Since each diocese is responsible for implementing its own protocols, policies diverge somewhat, but one rule never varies: Following a complaint, the bishop must take public action. This usually begins by handing the matter over to a parish committee, composed of priests and lay people, for internal investigation. If the complainant is a minor, the police and the Children’s Aid Society are immediately contacted and the accused priest is removed from duty during the investigation.

As a result, the Roman Catholic Church into which Sherren has been ordained is very different from the institution his predecessors inherited. This difference is reflected in every level of the Church’s operations, beginning with interior design: Glass is now found in many administrative buildings, with windows installed on office doors. Priests also incorporate the crisis into their homilies and explain the new protocols at Sunday mass. But while the Church has opened up, it has also become more cautious. When Bishop Grecco took over the Charlottetown diocese less than a year before the first allegations against Smith were made, he insisted every volunteer get a criminal-record check, even those in the choir. The shift is most evident in the way clergy associate with parishioners. Closed-door, one-on-one meetings are avoided. Hugs and embraces are also a no-no. “Handshakes work fine,” says Sherren. “Verbal appreciation works, too.”

Sherren wants parishioners – and the larger public – to understand that the Church now “gets it.” He wants Catholics especially to trust that “if abuse happens, it’s not going to be swept under the rug.” While the effectiveness of these methods has yet to be proven, there’s no question the cumulative effect of the scandals has forced the hidebound 2,000-year-old institution to have an unusually candid conversation with itself. How do we help the victims? How do we heal our community? How do we prevent this from happening again? It has taken that conversation deeper, and further, than many might realize. (Photo: NTV)

Next: “Catholics believe a priest can personally 
extend God’s forgiveness for their sins.”

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Photo: fzant/iStockphoto / John Sylvester 

For James deBeer, who was ordained in 2008, being a priest is about more than just sermons. He is an around-the-clock friend, teacher, spiritual advisor. “If you’re serving people, you have to be out with them,” says the 31-year-old, who pastors three parishes in rural Manitoba. “Waiting in the hospital when they’re getting surgery, or sitting in the room when their mother dies.”

Such intimacy, while beautiful, also breeds the perfect conditions for sexual abuse. One of the most important sacraments the Church confers is that of confession. Catholics believe a priest can personally extend God’s forgiveness for their sins. John McKiggan is a Halifax-based lawyer who represents abuse victims across Canada, explains the dependence brought about by such beliefs – which turn priests into extensions of God rather than fallible peers, and therefore discourages victims from reporting on their abusers – is largely the reason it’s now possible to sue the Church for the actions of individual priests, even in situations where it’s clear the diocese and the bishops weren’t aware of the abuse. According to a 2004 decision by the Supreme Court of Canada in the case of John Doe v. Bennett (Kevin Bennett was a Newfoundland priest who molested at least 36 children over a period of decades), the Church is vicariously responsible precisely because of the institutional power it has awarded priests over their parishioners. “Until the sex-abuse crisis, that relationship was rarely considered in terms of the power imbalance it created,” says McKiggan, “so no rules of accountability were in place.” But all that has changed.

This change is now reflected in the seminaries. At one time, a priest’s education focused mainly on spiritual and pastoral development: how to deliver a sermon, how to hand out the sacraments, how to offer advice. Now his education, which can take anywhere from five to ten years, includes what is called “Integral Human Development.” “Integral” because it brings together the psychosocial and sexual, as well as the spiritual and the intellectual; “Human” because it seeks to remind priests that they live on Earth and have problems just like the rest of us. The goal is to demythologize priesthood and encourage priests to be more open to criticism – to push them to monitor not only themselves, but also one another.

In practice, this means talking – a lot. Most of the conversation happens at weekly “human-formation conferences,” where seminarians break into groups to candidly discuss their communication styles and skills, as well as their personal development, beliefs and fears. One of the biggest topics is sex. Priests now talk about their sexuality in ways they rarely did before, which include getting real about celibacy. “Everything’s on the table: feelings, temptations and urges,” says Steve Wlusek, the rector of St. Peter’s Seminary in London, Ont. Priests are now taught that the sex drive is natural, but there are other ways to express it: building community, being creative, caring for parishioners. “We expect priests to ‘be fruitful and multiply,'” says Wlusek, “only in a broader sense.”

Screening is an essential part of their training. At St. Peter’s, students are tested psychologically three times: during their initial application to the seminary, after their first year in the theology program and again after their practicum or “pastoral” year. The point is to identify triggers, weak spots – anything that might hint at trouble down the line.

The Archdiocese of Edmonton has pushed this screening even further. St. Joseph Seminary offers a unique program, Called to Protect, designed specifically by Praesidium, a U.S. firm specializing in abuse prevention. Led by a Praesidium-trained expert, Called to Protect uses video interviews with victims and convicted offenders, combined with role-playing exercises, to teach ministers and lay people how to spot and respond to red-flag behaviours: particular interest in a child, overly physical interactions (such as wrestling or tickling), inappropriate jokes. When standards are clear, it’s no longer possible to defend someone as an “affectionate person.” It also becomes much easier to blow the whistle when behaviour is odd, even if it seems innocent.

The program has shaken up assumptions. “I had been too trusting,” says Shayne Craig, the 48-year-old former rector of St. Joseph, of his realization that some predators join the priesthood to target youth. “I never thought they would exploit that.”

Michael Schumacher, a 32-year-old associate pastor at St. Theresa’s Parish in Edmonton, was one of roughly 95 local priests required to complete the training, alongside nearly 200 diocesan leaders (including seminary academics, youth ministers and volunteers). He says he picked up “very practical ways to put a suspected predator on edge. Let them know you are watching them, in a way that causes them to back off or get scared.”

Schumacher’s motivation is rooted in his vocation. “I first heard the call to priesthood around the time the abuse scandal broke in Boston in 2002. It didn’t push me away from God, but rather drew me in. I realized things needed to change for the better. I wanted to be a part of that process.” 

Next: How a 68-year-old nun is lifting the veil
off of years of sexual abuse.

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Photo: fzant/iStockphoto / John Sylvester 

“For centuries, the priest was a man set apart, a godlike figure,” says Wlusek, who describes how families were once thrilled when priests invited their children for sleepovers or took them along on trips. That such scenarios now astonish many Catholics speaks to a dramatic shift in how lay people relate to clergy. “Catholics now demand that priests be worthy of the trust given to them.”

For Nuala Kenny, a 68-year-old nun and a leading expert on clerical sex abuse, the clergy’s inflated sense of personal holiness is at the heart of the scandals. The Church’s chief priority, says Kenny, has been to protect its image. The fear was “if priests were revealed to be frail beings subject to the same weaknesses as other men, everything would tumble down.” In some ways, she argues, the Church’s damage control constitutes the real scandal, causing far more harm to the institution than the abuse itself. It’s easier to grasp that a predator could pose as a priest than it is to understand how any organization could protect such men, let alone allow them to destroy children’s lives.

As part of a group commissioned to investigate sexual assault in the Archdiocese of St. John’s in 1989 – a community already reeling from allegations of abuse at Mount Cashel – Kenny saw first-hand the devastating effects of that secrecy. She describes travelling icy Newfoundland roads on a school bus, attending town-hall-style meetings where families of the victims vented their rage and feelings of betrayal. “I remember an elderly, well-worn gentleman who rose to his feet and, tears streaming down his face, told us about the abuse of a beloved nephew. His desolation was palpable.”


Very little had been written about the sexual abuse of children by priests, so in 1990, Kenny drew on her agonizing sessions with Newfoundland families to help draft what came to be known as the Winter Report. It was one of the world’s first documents to lay out the systemic reasons behind both the abuse and the Church’s mismanagement of the crisis. The report is largely responsible for identifying two types of clerical offenders. The first is the “sexual predator”: a cunning, charismatic individual who uses so-called “grooming tactics” – gifts, special confidences, intimidation, alcohol – to confuse children until they’re vulnerable. The Church has invested a great deal in blaming sexual predators for its predicament. According to such a narrative, the organization can be accused mainly of being naive. And the best way to stop these “wolves in sheep’s clothing” – screening – is a policy the Church already embraces.

The second offender is harder to define and, for the Church, more controversial. This is the “situational offender”: a sexually conflicted man provoked by circumstances – loneliness, immaturity, alcoholism – to act out against children. While predators will abuse immediately upon entering the priesthood and have many victims, situational offenders won’t abuse until much later and claim fewer victims.

Philip Dodgson, a clinical psychologist, worked for 15 years at the Southdown Institute, a not-for-profit facility in Aurora, Ont., for church ministers with mental-health or addiction problems. During his time at Southdown, Dodgson treated many clerical offenders whose abusive tendencies, he argues, can be traced to a celibate life founded on denial. “Men suppress their sexuality to fulfill their call to priesthood,” he says. Once ordained, those sexual feelings catch up with them, and they focus on people to whom they have unfettered access: children. “In a few cases,” says Dodgson, “abusers offer up spiritual justification: that God brought the child into their lives to ‘give’ them the experience.”

The very idea of such abusers – who crack under sexual pressure – can be difficult for Catholic leaders to accept because it means the Church is directly culpable. Yet the Church’s programs are designed to stop the conditions that lead to situational abuse, meaning that it tacitly admits such offenders exist.

Kenny is willing to publicly acknowledge the existence of situational offenders, but she argues the approach to preventing such abuse “has been like giving Aspirin for a headache when the cause of the headache is a brain tumour.” For Kenny, the critical factor is not celibacy but loneliness – the loneliness of being on a pedestal. “Nobody can touch you,” she explains. “You can be bleeding, and as long as you’re up there on the pedestal, no one can help.” When that goes on long enough, it can create cognitive dissonance – in extreme cases, enough to push a priest to molest a child.

Next: What priests are doing to keep temptation at bay.

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Photo: fzant/iStockphoto / John Sylvester 

The Church has taken steps to address this isolation. Priests are encouraged to stay connected with their families and meet regularly with their mentors. One of the more practical solutions has been the creation of Ministry to Priests groups, where priests kick back, hash out doubts, share frustrating incidents. Michael Schumacher’s group goes curling in the winter and golf in the summer. James deBeer gets together with local priests for a meal or a movie. “Celibacy doesn’t mean being alone,” deBeer says. “You still need intimate friendships.”

The Church is also working very hard to close the power gap between priests and lay people. Rather than watching from the pews, the laity now plays a role in church affairs. The Archdiocese of Toronto’s abuse protocols, for example, were overhauled in 2010 by a parish council that included a children’s welfare expert, the educational director at a local Catholic school board and Philip Dodgson, who at that time was co-director of assessment at Southdown. DeBeer’s council in Minnedosa, Man., is made up of a dairy farmer, a grain farmer, a retired teacher, a nurse, an accountant and a banker.

The idea is that collaboration creates trust, but deBeer also sees his own role being transformed. “Throughout our history, we got caught up in the idea of power as authority, control or influence. It’s a medieval hangover that still hurts today,” he says. “The priesthood is not a position of entitlement. It’s a position of service. They are the Church, not us.”

Fallout over the abuse still affects everyday relations for Catholic priests in Prince Edward Island. “I’ve been insulted when walking around with the collar on,” says Chris Sherren is now at St. Paul’s Parish in Summerside. “In stores, I’ve noticed parents standing protectively between me and their child. It’s tempting to want to retreat from the world and take the collar off in public. But you just brush it off and carry on.”

Sherren recognizes the need for boundaries between priests and parishioners, but worries that those boundaries come at the cost of a more familial feel to parish life. “There’s a risk of parishes becoming sort of like a gas station or a corner store,” he says. “You go in, you have your professional relationship, you get what you need and then you go home. Not exactly the warmest experience in the world.”

Yet reform continues to be driven by fresh allegations in dioceses in Canada and abroad. One case has been particularly traumatic: In September 2009, one month after brokering an unprecedented $15 million settlement with dozens of Nova Scotian victims of clerical abuse, Antigonish Bishop Raymond Lahey was charged with possessing and attempting to import child pornography after customs agents searched his laptop. The diocese has since started selling some 400 property assets to cover those settlement costs, yet the Church’s apology has been irreparably tainted by Lahey’s arrest. (Lahey later pleaded guilty to possession of child porn and was defrocked last May.)

The Archdiocese of Halifax’s course correction was swift. Under the direction of Archbishop Anthony Mancini, who temporarily took over Lahey’s post, the Church overhauled its protocol manual with more detailed procedures on reporting and investigating allegations. Within months of the Lahey scandal, approximately 2,000 people working at 48 local parishes underwent criminal-record checks and signed a “Covenant of Care” agreement that clearly outlines unacceptable behaviour and activities.

But while similar changes are being implemented more widely – in Western Canada, the insurer Ecclesiastical required 20 of 22 dioceses in the region to revise their protocols – such reforms may come too late to eradicate older abusers still hiding in the system. It’s also too soon to say whether screening practices have caught any predators among the generation now in the seminary. And protocols are only effective if followed. Richard Grecco and Mancini were willing to act quickly and decisively, but not every bishop might.

Crucial as the new protocols are, the future depends on priests like Sherren, who understand the Church has lost the luxury of sitting still; that it’s been deeply wrong about many things; that it wasn’t always transformative – it was also broken and cruel.

These days, Sherren spends a lot of energy running the parish youth group. They do what kids like to do: hang out. He keeps his distance. “You’re not there to be their best friend,” he points out, “you’re there to be their priest.” Still, that doesn’t stop the children from having serious conversations with him. Sherren admires the intellectual freedom young people enjoy. “They’re open to discussing things and looking at different angles,” he says. “In some ways, they don’t have the same baggage as other generations.” That’s a good thing for the Church, he adds. “Maybe one day they’ll be able to forgive us.”

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