Clergy abuse raised at bishops’ plenary

By  Deborah Gyapong, Canadian Catholic News
  • October 24, 2006
CORNWALL, Ont. - Clerical sexual abuse remained a hot topic for Canada’s Catholic bishops as they gathered for their annual plenary in Cornwall Oct. 16-21.

According to Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) president Archbishop Andre Gaumond, the bishops will be considering whether to make voluntary guidelines for the handling of abuse charges mandatory.

But victims of sexual abuse want the bishops to go further. At an Oct. 16 news conference, victims asked the bishops to automatically petition Rome to defrock any priest convicted of sexual offences. They also sought the creation of a national registry of convicted priests and the establishment of uniform standards to provide counselling for victims and alleged victims who have not completed the court process.

Carol Mieras, who was among the 47 female victims abused by Fr. Charles Sylvestre in the Chatham, Ont., area, said London Bishop Ronald Fabbro’s vow to petition Rome to have Sylvestre defrocked was “a positive move.” Sylvestre recently received a three-year sentence after pleading guilty to the abuse charges dating back decades.

“What does it take for you to make this request in the case of other convicted sex offender priests?” she asked. “Does it take almost 50 victims? What is the standard? Is there a standard?”

Mieras said a policy to defrock priests would provide accountability and deterrence.

A man who alleges abuse by Msgr. Bernard Prince, a former Vatican official who has been charged with various sexual offences involving 11 complainants in the Pembroke diocese, asked for standardized counselling services.

“Tom,” who could not reveal his true identity due to a court-ordered publication ban, said that he was having trouble getting the Pembroke diocese to reimburse him for counselling services. He pointed out that different dioceses have different systems for helping victims and alleged victims who have not proved their cases in court.

“I would ask that there be a timely and streamlined process for the provision of funding for counselling to victims and alleged victims alike,” Tom said.

Lawyers from the Ledroit Beckett law firm who represent numerous sexual abuse complainants also called for a national registry of priests criminally convicted of sexual crimes.

“This single step would prevent the silent transfer of offending priests to new parishes without notice of their past, a notorious practice which has left a path of devastation in its wake,” said lawyer Robert Talach. Also present was lawyer Dallas Lee,who represents the alleged victims of sexual abuse now under investigation in the Cornwall Inquiry.

CCCB vice president Archbishop James Weisgerber acknowledged there is a suspicion that priests are shuffled around but he said “that is not happening.” He said individual bishops could agree to abide by mandatory standards, but the CCCB had no power to impel them to do so.

“The only way it could be mandatory is if all the bishops are in agreement,” he said. “The conference cannot make mandatory laws for bishops.

“Each bishop is autonomous and it is very important for the structure of the church that that be respected,” he said.

Weisgerber did not think the victims’ suggestions to automatically seek the defrocking of priests would work.

“It’s always difficult to have automatic policies,” he said, noting that every case is different and individual circumstances must be taken into account.

“The number one rule is that children be protected,” he said. “No priest who has abused children should have any public ministry.

“Every diocese has a protocol,” he said. “We have an obligation to make that known to the Canadian public.”

Weisgerber, who has led the committee investigating how well the church has responded to the recommendations in the CCCB document From Pain to Hope, said establishing a national standard for counselling would face hurdles because not all dioceses have the same resources. Some simply could not afford to provide the same level of services.

He also rejected having a separate registry for convicted sexual offender priests when there already is a national sex offender registry. “Would you have a separate category for every type of person?”

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