Fr. J.A. Turcotte, O.M.I.

Priest innocent of abuse still has name shamed

  • July 8, 2022

A Catholic priest falsely accused of sexual assault on children at an Alberta residential school will not get his name returned to the school that bore his legacy since it was founded in 1969.

Fort McMurray Catholic School Division (FMCSD) and the Athabasca Tribal Council (ATC) revealed in a joint statement that Fr. J.A. Turcotte, O.M.I. was wrongly identified as a sexual abuser of children at Holy Angels Residential School in Fort Chipewyan during the 1960s. It led the school division to in April rename the school named in his honour to Our Lady of the Rivers.

The actual offender, according to the FMCSD and ATC, was a religious brother also named Turcotte.

ATC President Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation levelled the first public sexual abuse allegation against Fr. Turcotte at the Bring Our Children Home Healing Rally on Canada Day 2021. This, and other allegations, compelled an FMCSD investigation that led to the school’s renaming.

In the aftermath, additional survivors emerged to reveal a case of mistaken identity occurred.

FCMSD chair Cathie Langmead thanked ATC for its cooperation in ultimately getting to the truth of this matter and offered apologies for this “regrettable event” and for the “failure to ensure due diligence resulted in unnecessary heartache within our Catholic community.”

“We would like to thank Athabasca Tribal Council, and in particular the citizens of Fort Chipewyan, who recognized that Fr. Turcotte was mistakenly identified, and is innocent of previous allegations made against him,” said Langmead. “As a board, we take full responsibility for hastily removing Fr. Turcotte’s name from our downtown school. Our failure to ensure due diligence resulted in unnecessary heartache within our Catholic community and for this we apologize.”

Fr. Turcotte’s influence as a religious leader was evident for many years in the Fort McMurray region. He served as a priest in the community from 1948-58 and 1963-74. He also aided many Catholic missions throughout the northeastern region of Alberta.

George McGuigan, superintendent of FMCSD, expressed regret over the sullying of Turcotte’s legacy.

“It is deeply regrettable that we have tarnished his great name, not only as a highly respected priest in our community, but as a foundational leader in the development of Catholic education in this region,” said McGuigan. “It is through his insightful leadership that we have developed into such a strong Catholic education division. Our board of trustees will work to ensure his name will be fully restored and recognized.” 

Reinstating Fr. Turcotte as the namesake of the school will not be among the initiatives FCMSD is planning. Adam, in the press statement, offers a clue why. 

“The name Turcotte continues to be a deeply traumatic trigger for survivors in our Indigenous communities, and we need to respect that.” Adam added that “we agree that work to correct the mistaken identity of Fr. Turcotte is necessary and can take other forms that still respect the impact on survivors.”

Fr. Ken Thorson, provincial superior of OMI Lacombe Province, weighed in with a written statement to The Catholic Register.

“While it is deeply regrettable when any individual is wrongly accused of sexual abuse, we believe it is important for survivors and witnesses to feel confident in being able to come forward, and participate in due process. Through continued transparency and cooperation between survivors, government officials, religious congregations and law enforcement, we are better positioned to thoroughly investigate allegations in a way that supports justice for survivors while protecting due process for the accused,” said Thorson.

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