Bishop Raymond Lahey of the Diocese of Antigonish arrives at a police station in Ottawa Oct.1, 2009. Lahey turned himself in to face charges of possession of and importing child pornography. CNS photo/Chris Wattie, Reuters

Francis Campbell: We can no longer hide from some ugly truths

  • August 29, 2018

Groundhog Day is a 1993 movie featuring actor Bill Murray as a cynical television weatherman forced to live the same day over and over again.

Unfortunately, we Catholics seem stuck in the same real-life drama regarding the sexual abuse of children by priests and ensuing coverups by the Church hierarchy.

A lengthy grand jury report released Aug. 14 reveals internal documents from six Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania showing more than 300 “predator priests” accused of sexually abusing more than 1,000 children.

“Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all. For decades. Monsignors, auxiliary bishops, bishops, archbishops, cardinals have mostly been protected; many, including some named in this report, have been promoted.”

The grand jury described the Church’s methods as “a playbook for concealing the truth” after FBI agents identified a series of practices they found in diocese files.

Grand jurors reported that some victims were plied with alcohol and groped or molested. Others were orally, vaginally or anally raped. In Erie, a seven-year-old boy was sexually abused by a priest who then told him he should go to confession and confess his “sins” to that same priest.

Priests gave boys gold cross necklaces to mark them as being “groomed” for abuse.

“But all of them were brushed aside, in every part of the state, by Church leaders who preferred to protect the abusers and their institutions above all,” the report said.

The announcement immediately brought me back to mid-September nine years ago. Just six weeks after issuing an historic apology and brokering a $15-million settlement with victims of sexual abuses committed by priests four and five decades earlier in the Antigonish Diocese of Nova Scotia, then-Bishop Raymond Lahey was arrested at the Ottawa airport for possession of child pornography. The bishop was charged a month later with possessing 588 images, 33 videos and several graphic stories.

Almost two years later, Lahey pleaded guilty to possessing pornographic images that were described as ranging from soft-core nude shots of teen boys to far more grisly photos of torture. In January 2012, Lahey was sentenced to 15 months in jail but released on probation when given credit for time already served.

My memory is of driving on the highway on that day in September 2009 when the lead story on radio news was of Lahey being charged. Already having absorbed the very disturbing accounts of sex abuse in the Church from Newfoundland, Massachusetts and the aforementioned settlement in Nova Scotia, the Lahey revelation was almost too much to bear. I pulled to the side of the highway, banged my fists on the steering wheel and yelled aloud for no one to hear, “No, no, no.”

I cannot even imagine how my denial and disbelief must have been magnified among the victims of sexual abuse who had just signed off on a class-action suit with reassurances from Lahey. How could he do this, what kind of a Church attracts people like that to positions of authority? The recriminations that spiralled among ordinary Catholics like me again must have been amplified a hundredfold by Catholics who had lived through heinous abuses.

In the face of the recent revelations from Pennsylvania, priests in many parishes addressed the recurring scourge of sexual abuse from the pulpit. At a Mass I attended, the pastor knelt before the image of Jesus and led the congregation in heartfelt prayer for the victims and the faltering Church.

“The reports of such evil; the devastation it has caused in individuals, on their families and on the whole Church, demonstrates that the Church is in crisis,” Archbishop Anthony Mancini wrote in a letter distributed online and in parishes of the Halifax-Yarmouth archdiocese in Nova Scotia

“As archbishop, I am angered, shocked and devastated in the face of this scandal of sexual abuse. Like many of you, I am ashamed. I resonate with those priests, especially the younger ones, as well as young adult Catholics, for whom this recent flurry of revelations more than rattles their Catholic convictions. Together, however, we can get through this with God’s grace.”

When confronted, groundhogs retreat and hide away in their underground burrows. We can get through this together but the Church and its adherents can no longer retreat and hide away from the ugly truth.

Those responsible for forever ruining the lives of innocent and vulnerable children must be held legally and morally accountable. The countless superiors, too, must be held accountable for enabling perpetrators by looking the other way or sending the transgressors forward to repeat their almost unspeakable crimes.

It is time for the Church to emerge from the safety of its burrow and make a concerted effort to determine what it is about this institution that draws or develops behaviours that are so contrary to the teachings of Jesus.

(Campbell is a reporter at the Halifax Chronicle-Herald.)

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