Victims of abuse from years gone by caught in a grey zone

  • June 4, 2010
child abuse survivorIn the criminal justice system there are more grey areas than black and white, particularly when it comes to 20- and 30-year-old sex crimes.

When an adult tells church officials that as a child he or she was abused in the church, the internal process these days is pretty clear. But what about the police?

When Fr. George Smith was accused this May of inappropriately touching a young person while working in Deer Lake, Nfld., between 1986 and 1991 he was immediately suspended from his duties as a parish priest in Prince Edward Island. An internal investigation was launched in the diocese of Corner Brook and Labrador. Police, however, were left out of the picture.

“He (the alleged victim) is an older person, and if he wanted to do the police thing he could do it,” Corner Book and Labrador Bishop Doug Crosby told The Catholic Register.

The allegations against Smith have not been proven.

While there’s a legal obligation to report sexual or physical abuse of children to police and children’s aid authorities in Ontario and most jurisdictions in Canada, there’s no legal obligation to report the crime if the victim is an adult, said special victims unit detective Brad Hoover.

“You can’t force somebody to report a crime. There’s no legal requirement, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a sexual assault or whether it’s a robbery,” he said.

There are good reasons to leave that decision in the hands of the victim, said lawyer Susan Adam Metzler.

“That’s a very personal decision for someone to make,” said the partner at Miller Thomson LLP. “Once you go off to the police an investigation starts. You as the victim or the individual really lose control of your process.”

Where the plaintiff in a civil suit gets to decide just how far to take a case, a criminal investigation has a life of its own, said Metzler.

“It becomes that much more public. It hits the press. Even though (media) will often not report the name of the victim, people know,” she said.

But when it comes to sex crimes, it’s not quite so black and white, said Hoover.

“Our investigations are generally led by whatever the complainant or the victim’s wishes are,” said the detective. “If they want us to investigate it, we will investigate it. If they want to just report it and make us aware of it, we can do that.”

The archdiocese of Toronto tells adult victims of sexual assault they have the option of going to police. But the archdiocese can’t do it for them, said communications director Neil McCarthy.

“Our first focus is on the desire of the victim,” he said. “From the first minute, if it’s a credible allegation, we give them counselling, we offer them legal assistance.”

The internal church process is based on canon law. The judicial vicar appoints a neutral investigator. The investigator will engage experts to help with the investigation. In addition, the archbishop appoints an advisory team consisting of a senior priest, a psychiatrist, a person with experience counselling victims, two or more parents and the lawyer representing the church. The investigator convenes a hearing.

Even if nothing illegal happened — a consensual sexual relationship between adults, for example — the process is designed to protect parishes and families while respecting the rights of the priest.

“We may say we don’t feel it’s appropriate to return this priest to ministry even if he hasn’t done anything illegal,” McCarthy said.

If the law has been broken, the police want to be the first to investigate.

“From an evidence-gathering perspective, it’s better for us,” said Hoover. “We have certain rules of evidence we have to follow.”

An independent investigation isn’t a bad thing, said Toronto criminal lawyer Patrick Metzler (not related to Susan Adam Metzler).

“Often it doesn’t get to the police first,” said Metzler, who for 10 years was a crown prosecutor. “I don’t see the harm in people being interviewed and investigated first. The more statements, the more a matter is investigated, the better.”

Police can count on full co-operation from the archdiocese if a criminal investigation is launched, said McCarthy.

“We’ve co-operated in the past with them,” he said. “What we try to do is make sure we have a transparent process, that we try to put the victim first.”

The Toronto archdiocese’s procedures are under review. A special commission of lay advisors appointed by Archbishop Thomas Collins is due to report by July 31.

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