Letter from Pembroke bishop doesn't indicate a cover-up of sex abuse complaint

  • April 16, 2010
Bernard PrinceOTTAWA - A lawyer representing the Pembroke diocese says the church was “upfront and proactive” in dealing with a complaint of sexual abuse by a priest and followed the wishes of the victim in not calling police.

Attorney Charles Gibson was responding to recent publication of details from a 1993 letter sent from the Pembroke bishop to the Vatican’s ambassador. Media reports suggested the letter showed there was a high-level church cover-up to avoid scandal.

Gibson, representing the Pembroke diocese in civil litigation brought by victims of former Msgr. Bernard Prince, said the letter’s author, Bishop J.R. Windle, now deceased, was not encouraging a cover-up at all.

“The diocese of Pembroke was upfront and proactive with respect to the complaint,” he said. “The only reason officials did not divulge it or pass it along to the police was because the victim (in his early 30s, according to the bishops’ correspondence) asked them not to.”

Robert Talach, who represents eight remaining plaintiffs (six have already settled), said he would be “terrified” if the determination of a crime were left up to victims.

“If someone commits an egregious crime and because of my psychological state I don’t want to report it doesn’t mean a crime was not committed,” Talach said.

Talach said the abuse against his client began when the boy was nine or 10. Prince, who has been defrocked, is serving a four-year sentence in British Columbia after being convicted in 2008 of one charge of indecent and sexual assault and pleading guilty to 12 others.

Prince was posted to Rome in 1991, several months after allegations were made against him. In 1993, in a letter to Apostolic Nuncio Archbishop Carlo Curis, Windle wrote that he was “adamantly opposed to Fr. Prince receiving any papal honour or ever being promoted to the episcopate.” He said the consequences would be “disastrous” for the Canadian Church and the Holy See.

“I can say without hesitation that all of the Ontario bishops and the president of the CCCB would support me in this assessment.”

The letter became public through filings in the civil litigation.

When allegations against Prince first surfaced, Windle notified other ecclesial authorities in Ontario who might have worked with Prince to inform them of the accusations, Gibson said.

When Prince was being considered in 1991 for a Rome posting, Windle said in a letter to the Vatican that the charge against Prince was “very serious” but he would not object to his being “given another chance since it would remove him from the Canadian scene.”

Subsequent to that letter, Windle learned there could be as many as four or five victims. But he knew of only one victim when he suggested Prince could be given a second chance, and was “under the impression that the incident was isolated, in the distant past, and there was little or no danger of any scandal ever emerging.”

Gibson said that while the diocese had investigated the first complaint and found it credible, the other complaints were just rumours.

“Nobody had a name,” he said.

The Pembroke diocese said in a statement: “The diocese is confident that the recently released documents demonstrate that it has done its best to be proactive and responsible in following its policies in dealing with these allegations. The diocese took the initiative in contacting the victim in October 1990 in response to rumours that began circulating early in 1990.”

When Talach launched the lawsuit in 2008 he said he wanted to know whether the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops knew of Prince’s sexual abuse before he worked at the general secretariat in the 1980s. Prince also taught briefly at Saint Paul University and worked at the nunciature.

The president of the CCCB at the time, now-retired Ottawa Archbishop Marcel Gervais, was out of the country and unavailable for comment at press time.

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