Senior members of the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy in Ontario showed contempt for the law and for the most loyal and unquestioning among their adherents, in seeking to protect a sexually abusive priest, Bernard Prince, from police charges.
In so doing they ran the risk that an apparent abuser would go on to abuse other children, and that his victims would be denied justice. As revealed in a letter written by the late Bishop Joseph Windle of Pembroke, Ont., the church preferred to hush up the priest's serial abuses and spare itself a scandal rather than to face up to its moral responsibility to make child protection and care for victims the priority. The 1993 letter, obtained by The Globe's Tu Thanh Ha, makes clear that at least four archbishops and two bishops knew there were serious allegations from four or five victims, dating back several years. It was not until 2005 that police received a complaint; Mr. Prince was convicted in 2008 of molesting 13 boys between 1964 and 1984.
The church's actions may not have broken any laws. But they were inimical to the spirit of the law - that the protection of children comes first. Most of Canada has child-welfare legislation that requires everyone, not just professionals, to report suspected child abuse. While all these rules and laws generally pertain to children who are currently at risk, rather than to incidents from many years earlier, they convey the importance our society puts on protecting all children from serious harm. This is the point that the church still seems unable to grasp, to judge from recent comments at the Vatican in which the subject was dismissed as "idle gossip" and the treatment of the church compared to that faced by the Jews during the Holocaust.
The letter from Bishop Windle to the Pope's envoy to Canada pleaded that Mr. Prince not be given any Papal honour, lest any of his victims be so angered they complain to the police about the abuse. (He was eventually given the title Monsignor anyway.) Cynically, Bishop Windle pointed to the church's good fortune; the victims were of Polish descent and had such respect for the priesthood and the church that they had not gone to the police. All this came just a year after the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, after wrenching experiences, especially at the Mount Cashel boys home in St. John's, Nfld., produced guidelines called From Pain to Hope, on how to deal with child abuse. "Together with all other responsible citizens, the Bishops respect the civil laws and fully collaborate with civil authorities in sexual abuse inquiries," the church's website says in introducing the report. But the letter from Bishop Windle suggests the church saw itself, at least in this instance, apart from the law.
When the church puts the protection of its reputation ahead of the protection of children, it is bound to suffer a much larger and more devastating injury, once the truth emerges.