TORONTO, Canada — As a kid, I had no idea how unfortunately common my experience of the Roman Catholic Church would turn out to be.
I grew up in the east end of Montreal, a member of a close-knit enclave of Italians in a French-speaking neighborhood near the shores of the St. Lawrence River.
On Sundays, we’d gather for mass in the gym of a local school. Around 1970, a parish church was built, partly with donations from every family I knew. It quickly became the cultural, recreational and, of course, religious center of our small community.
It also became the place where some of my friends — boys and girls — were sexually abused by a priest.
I escaped his predation partly, I’m sure, because I spent far less time at the church than my altar boy friends. Incredulous and angry, they would often tell me of their ordeal. But they never told their parents, or anyone in authority. It never entered any of our minds to do so.
Community concerns nonetheless grew. “Do what the priest says, not what he does,” was widely advised. Church authorities eventually did what we now recognize as common practice: They transferred the pedophile priest to a different parish.
At an early age, in other words, I came to see the Catholic Church as hypocritical and contemptible. How could I not?
Neither did it surprise me when, in the 1980s, sex abuse scandals involving Catholic priests and thousands of child victims erupted in Canada.
What is surprising today, even shocking, is how little the Catholic Church worldwide learned from the trailblazing work done by the Canadian Church when it confronted its demons.
“Anyone who was paying attention had to know, at least 20 years ago, that there’s a right way to manage this and a wrong way,” says Sister Nuala Kenny, professor emeritus of bioethics at Dalhousie University in Halifax, referring to sex abuse scandals rocking the Church in Europe.
“But that’s where the systemic issues kick in: If you’re (simply) trying to avoid scandal and you’re into denial about some of these things, they don’t go away,” Kenny, a Catholic nun and pediatrician, added in an interview.
Few know better than Kenny.
In 1990, she was a member of the Winter Commission, set up by the Catholic Church to investigate the sexual abuse of boys by members of the Christian Brothers religious order at the notorious Mount Cashel orphanage in the Atlantic province of Newfoundland in the 1970s and 1980s.
Two years later she became a member of the Ad Hoc Committee on Child Sexual Abuse, set up by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. It’s report, From Pain to Hope, was issued after the Church and the Ontario government agreed to a $40-million compensation package for 1,600 men abused as children at two Catholic training schools near Ottawa and Toronto. Police laid more than 200 assault and sex-related charges, which ended in 15 convictions.
Both reports were widely applauded for pulling few punches. The Winter Commission called on bishops to question the power, accountability and celibacy of priests, describing the latter as creating “excessive and destructive pressures” on some in the Church.
Allegations of child abuse, the reports insisted, must be treated as potential crimes — rather than internal church matters — and reported to civil authorities. The primary obligation, they stressed, is protection of the child.
Yet in subsequent scandals in Boston and Ireland, priests accused of sex abuse were simply moved to other parishes, while Church authorities turned a blind eye to allegations, if not flatly tried to cover them up. Sex abuse scandals have also hit Germany, Netherlands, Austria and Switzerland.
Rev. John Allan Loftus, who participated in From Pain to Hope, says the Catholic Church worldwide is paying the price of barely noticing recommendations in the Canadian report.
“I don’t think they paid much attention to it, to their detriment,” says Loftus, former president of Regis College, the University of Toronto’s Jesuit faculty of theology.
But even Canada’s Catholic Church hasn’t been fully faithful to its reform advice. Kenny says Canadian churches have implemented protocols for the reporting and handling of sex abuse cases, and have improved the screening and education of student priests.
But Canada’s Catholic bishops, she adds, have failed to deal with the underlying issues in abuse scandals — the power of priests over parishioners, their lack of accountability to bishops or parishioners, and the Church’s attitude toward sexuality in general, and the celibacy of priests in particular.
“The approach that I see is not in the tradition of brave action for justice that I’ve come to respect the Canadian bishops for. I think it’s; ‘Head down, if it didn’t happen here, if it’s not happening now, if we took care of that, let’s move on.’ We’re not taking the opportunity for this larger conversation,” Kenny says.
Too many priests are isolated from parishioners, she adds, lacking in the kind of a support that can keep them out of trouble.
“If you’re on a pedestal, then nobody is your equal, nobody is your friend, nobody can give you the love and support you need when you start getting into trouble,” she says.
She also recalls a statement made by a group of Catholic nuns to the Winter Commission: “As long as we have the power structure totally dominated by celibate males, there’s something not right about the way in which we then identify issues about healthy sexuality and about the appropriate way to be affectionate and responsive with children or others.”
In a recent article, John Allen Jr., a leading Church analyst, gives Pope Benedict VXI high marks for clamping down on predatory priests, first as head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and later as pontiff.
The pope’s pastoral letter to Catholics in Ireland Friday stressed that the screening and education of student priests must be improved. He also denounced the Church’s tendency to place the avoidance of scandal before the rights and dignity of children.
But the pontiff was silent on the systemic issues, such as celibacy, identified by Kenny and the Winter Commission. Part of the problem is that Church leaders and bureaucrats at the Vatican can become terribly out of touch, says Loftus, now a clinical psychologist in Boston and priest at the Church of Saint Ignatius of Loyola.
“The church at that level lives in a different world than most of us do. It’s a world of propriety and of ancient texts and of liturgy and a different kind of faith — the rubber is just not hitting the road in lots of ways.
“So, I think it’s going to take a lot longer for them to really get it,” Loftus says.