Abuse victim John Swales has written an open letter in response to Pope Francis’ “Letter to the People of God.” Photo illustration by Lucy Barco

‘Apology without action is empty,’ Canadian abuse victim John Swales tells Pope Francis in letter

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  • September 12, 2018

Canadian abuse victim John Swales has responded to an open letter from Pope Francis with his own letter to Rome in which he rejects what he terms the Pope’s “empty” apology and calls for “real” change founded on “honesty and accountability.”

“I believe the Church has committed crimes against humanity. As head of the organization, I hold you responsible,” Swales wrote.

He was reacting to the Pope’s “Letter to the People of God,” published Aug. 20 after the release of a Pennsylvania grand jury report that cited decades of sexual abuse of minors by 301 priests and detailed how the crimes were covered up by bishops and other Church officials. The Pope’s open letter admitted that Church leaders “kept quiet” about the crimes and called for repentance, but did not propose specific new norms to deal with bishops who cover up abuse.

Swales sent copies of the letter to the Vatican and to the Vatican’s nuncio in Canada, Archbishop Luigi Bonazzi, in the hope that it will reach the Pope. Swales also launched an online petition urging abuse survivors to demand accountability from bishops and he created a website (DearPopeFrancis.org) urging victims to write directly to the Pope. He also called for a papal apology for the Church’s involvement in residential schools.

“I’m trying to co-ordinate this so it comes out to all people at the same time,” said Swales.

His letter to the Pope describes five years of abuse from 1969 to 1974 at the hands of Fr. Barry Glendinning, a former priest in London, Ont. Swales was 10 when it began. Glendinning was arrested and pled guilty to six charges of gross indecency involving five boys and a girl. He served three years probation, received psychological treatment at the Southdown Institute and was hired to teach liturgy at St. Peter’s Seminary in London, Ont., and later at Saint Paul University in Ottawa. He was laicized in 2008 and died in 2011.

Swales’ letter says he never recovered from the abuse. From the age of 15 until he began recovery from his addictions at 33 he dived deep into alcohol, drugs and prostitution. 

In 1996 the Swales family launched a civil action against Glendinning and the Diocese of London that led to a 1999 apology from then-Bishop John Sherlock — which Swales called “contrived” — and a 2004 award of $1.4 million.

“In hindsight, I realize that what I wanted more than anything was a sincere apology for what had happened and then to be held and supported by the Church that I had loved, through the aftermath,” Swales wrote to the Pope.

His letter claims that under Pope Francis the Church continues “to distance itself from responsibility and liability.”

“This is another kind of abuse of power,” he wrote.

“There is nothing specific written in your letter about the actions that might follow and no acknowledgment of the orchestrated coverup of moving predatory priests and the silencing of victims through threats of ex-communication and non-disclosure agreements. Apology without action is empty.”

His letter to Pope Francis was not motivated by anger, he said. 

“It’s time for the people who have been most directly impacted to have a voice in this story,” said Swales. “I hope that a simple person who has gone through hardships can have an audience with the Pope. Whether that will happen or not, I’m not sure.”

Swales, 59, has built a life as a single father of a daughter attending university, a son in high school, plus two daughters from a previous relationship. He also has two grandchildren. He has just begun studying social work at King’s College in London.

In his letter, Swales makes three recommendations.

“First, go straight to the source of pain. Direct non-offending priests and bishops all over the world to go with true humility to ask each person harmed in their parish for forgiveness. 

“Second, stop forcing survivors to litigate for compensation. Be willing to go to the lengths of bankrupting the institution in the name of healing all those the Church has hurt and destroyed.

“Third, publicly acknowledge the abuse of Indigenous peoples by priests and nuns. Repeat the first two actions.”

Swales received help in composing his letter from Western University chaplain Fr. Michael Bechard.

“For me to be able to walk with somebody on that path is a real gift,” Bechard said.

Bechard says Swales is wiser and gentler than anyone has a right to expect. He’s not surprised that Swales has made a success of his life.

“There’s a real resiliency in the human spirit which always amazes me,” Bechard said. 

A spokesperson said the London diocese had no comment.


Below is a letter Canadian abuse victim John Swales has sent to Pope Francis on September 7, 2018: 

Friday September 7, 2018 

His Holiness, Pope Francis 

Apostolic Palace 

00120 Vatican City 

Dear Pope Francis, 

I am writing this as an open letter in response to your letter dated August 20th written to the people of God. As such, I invite the hundreds of thousands of survivors of sexual abuse and their families to add their brave voices in speaking directly to you and the Vatican. I am writing to request action to demonstrate commitment to institutional reform. Without action, I cannot believe your apology is genuine. Often, lawyers and journalists speak for us. It is time for those of us who have survived sexual abuse by a priest or clergy to come together in raising our voices to demand leadership, action and change. 

My name is John Robert Swales. My story is not unique. I was sexually abused by Father Barry Glendinning in London Ontario, Canada for five years between 1969 - 1974 when he was arrested and convicted for the sexual abuse of myself and four other children. Despite the conviction, Father Glendinning would go on to other parishes and countless other children. The Church abandoned my family as soon as Father was arrested. We never recovered. I was 15. In the years that followed, I lost myself in alcohol, drugs and prostitution. I have a grade ten education. It wasn’t until 1995 that I found my way out of the darkness when I began to name what happened to me and speak about my experience. 

In 1996, I sought redress from the Church. I wanted an apology and support to heal from trauma. Instead I was met with lawyers and threats. This began an eight year legal battle that left me exhausted, exposed and further bloodied. My family won our very public court case in 2004. We were awarded compensation that did not address the breach. In hindsight, I realize that what I wanted more than anything was a sincere apology for what had happened and then to be held and supported by the Church that I had loved, through the aftermath. 

In your letter you write: “We are never completely ourselves unless we belong to a people.”  I found my people when I found my voice. My people form a community that never wanted to be. Our bond has been established through a shared experience of profound betrayal, malicious sexual violence and systematic abuse at the hands of your priests, bishops, cardinals and popes. 

They are ‘your’ priests. Sexual abuse by priests has been documented for centuries.1 The roots and the rot of sexual violence in the Church run deep. The Catholic Church has allowed and actively facilitated the ongoing global attack of children. I believe the Church has committed crimes against humanity. As head of the organization, I hold you responsible. For there to be real change, we need honesty and accountability. We need a restorative, wholehearted approach that is committed to institutional change to stop all forms of abuse. 

Under your leadership, the Vatican continues to distance itself from responsibility and liability by foisting accountability onto individual priests and dioceses. This is another kind of abuse of power. In the province of Nova Scotia here in Canada, whole populations lost their church because the scapegoat diocese went bankrupt to pay the settlements. The ongoing practice of abandoning the people on the frontlines of the Church is reprehensible and casts a long shadow of doubt on the sincerity of your letter. 

There is nothing specific written in your letter about the actions that might follow and no acknowledgement of the multiple orchestrated cover-up of moving predatory priests and the silencing of victims through threats of ex-communication and non-disclosure agreements. 

Apology without action is empty. 

I cannot accept your apology that is issued from the safety and distance of the Vatican. I cannot accept your apology until you acknowledge the hypocrisy of the Church that sets itself up as the highest moral authority yet is founded on vast and unearned patriarchal privilege, deep-set misogyny, homophobia and racism. As a Canadian, I cannot accept your apology until you explicitly acknowledge and include First Nations people and the atrocities of the residential schools.   

You write; “no effort to beg pardon and to seek to repair the harm done will ever be sufficient.” I believe that you underestimate the importance of these things. I cannot speak for anyone but myself; however, if the Bishop had sincerely apologized for what was done to me as a child, followed by supportive long-term resources to repair the harm, I might have recovered my life and my family. I might have forgiven the Church. 

Toward “opening up new paths of creativity” referenced in your letter, I submit that there are three voluntary actions to take. 

First, go straight to the source of pain. Direct non-offending priests and bishops all over the world to go with true humility to ask each person harmed in their parish for forgiveness. Listen silently to the devastating stories of survivors and their families. Believe them. Accept when forgiveness is not possible. Ask what would be meaningful to heal. Respond with generosity and largesse. 

Second, in seeking justice, we continue to face hostility and brutish litigation from the Church and those who protect it. Stop forcing survivors to litigate for compensation. Be willing to go to the lengths of bankrupting the institution in the name of healing all those the Church has hurt and destroyed. 

Third, publicly acknowledge the role of the Catholic Church in residential schools in Canada. 

Acknowledge and apologize for the sexual, physical and emotional abuse of Indigenous peoples by priests and nuns. 

To kill the “root of those evils” referenced in your letter, you can make the material wealth of the Church available to survivors. The wealth of the Church came from the people and should be returned to them. These are global actions that might serve the Church to “overcome the thirst for power and possessions” and the ongoing corruption that has shielded clerical abuse and the misuse of power for centuries. In directing such a deeply personal process, I suspect you will find that many still love the Church, and that forgiveness and healing is possible. 

You write, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it”. My people and your people are suffering. I ask that you use your considerable power to do something remarkable and real. 

Sincerely, 

John Swales 

Bayfield, Ontario, Canada 

www.dearpopefrancis.org 


CORRECTION: An outdated version of John Swales' open letter to Pope Francis was published with the last version of this story. It has since been updated to the most recent version of the open letter.

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