Survivors of clergy abuse across Canada are mobilizing, with growing calls for greater transparency and accountability in the Catholic church over its handling of sexual abuse cases.
Actions span from London, Ont., where a group of survivors has published names of credibly accused priests, to St. John’s, where the archbishop is under pressure to release names, and Ottawa, where a petition to the House of Commons is calling for a public inquiry.
In Vancouver’s archdiocese, a review committee uncovered 36 sexual abuse cases over the past 70 years, from which nine names were published - the first such disclosure for a Catholic diocese in Canada. The report recommended creating a national review board to hold bishops accountable, and a nationwide registry of credible allegations of clerical sexual abuse.
Change has been slow in Canada. The Globe and Mail has reported that responses lag behind those of peer countries that have published numbers on the scale and nature of the problem, and established external boards to advise the church on safeguarding children. In the United States, the number of accused priests and religious-order members has surpassed 6,500, according to the website Bishop Accountability.
Dioceses in Canada should be more forthcoming about publishing names said Bob McCabe, a survivor of sexual abuse by a priest that occurred when he was 11 years old. “It’s absolutely essential that they do this. They have to open up their secret files,” he said.
He will meet with the bishop of Hamilton, Ont., next month, and ask him to release past and present names within the next six months. If the diocese refuses, he and other survivors plan to do so themselves. “They have to come up with a list, and stop moving priests around.”
The petition to the House of Commons seeking a public inquiry into the Catholic church’s handling of child sexual abuse has more than 700 signatures so far. The petition, started last month by Daniela Siggia in Welland, Ont., says the inquiry should examine how abuser-priests were moved to other parishes or schools, along with the costs of this abuse to communities, in health care and mental health treatment, burdens on the justice system and addiction costs.
“We need a fulsome Canadian investigation that encompasses all communities that were impacted,” said Ms. Siggia, whose high-school teacher, a Catholic brother, was later convicted of abusing children. “The church clearly needs public oversight, because we believe it’s not happening internally.”
This means having the power to subpoena bishops and cardinals to testify, and to obtain personnel files in the church’s secret archives, said Ms. Siggia, who has joined survivor William O’Sullivan in weekly protests in Welland as part of a group seeking justice, including stronger safeguards for children.
“What is of interest to me is the logistics operation, that moved guilty priests around to allow them ... to keep predating, and avoid the law.”
The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) has stressed that the church in Canada is not centralized, and that each diocese is autonomous and responding to the abuse crisis in its own way. In debating whether to publish the names of credibly accused priests, each must consider privacy laws, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and victims’ preferences, it said in a statement last month. “Bishops are obliged to weigh all of these factors as they discern their individual responses to this question.”
The CCCB says bishops have committed “to the principle of zero tolerance.”
Action that is piecemeal and localized, rather than comprehensive and co-ordinated, is in contrast to the United States, where pressure led to a commissioned study in 2004 by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice on the nature and scope of the problem.
“If we didn’t have that information from the John Jay study, it would very difficult to respond as seriously as the church in the United States has responded to this crisis," said Francesco Cesareo, chair of the National Review Board, a lay group that advises U.S. bishops on the issue of sexual abuse. "Because the data is there, and so we have to respond as a result of the data.”
The Globe reached out to bishops in Victoria, St. John’s, Vancouver, Edmonton and Halifax with questions about transparency and accountability in the church, and received either no response, or was told the bishop was unavailable.
In Toronto, Archbishop Thomas Collins said he has been studying Vancouver’s disclosure and is considering next steps. He didn’t commit to publishing names, citing privacy and legal issues.
In London this month, some survivors posted names of 36 priests credibly accused of abusing minors over a 54-year period. The diocese acknowledged the list is “substantially correct” - and said four priests who weren’t listed also faced allegations of sexual abuse against minors.
In St. John’s, Gemma Hickey, who was sexually assaulted by a priest, has written to Archbishop Peter Hundt in recent months requesting that he release the names of clergy members who have been credibly accused of abuse within his jurisdiction.
In Montreal, Brian Boucher was sentenced in March to eight years in prison for sexually abusing two young boys. The CBC reported this month that parishioners had warned church leaders for decades about troubling behaviour, and yet the archdiocese took little action until a police investigation in 2015.
Montreal Archbishop Christian Lépine has ordered an external investigation into “who knew what and when.” This wasn’t “something that happened in the ’70s or ’60s or ’50s,” he said in an interview. “It just happened in the last 20 years ... so in that sense, it puts everyone in a state of shock. We were supposed to have turned a page, but no, it happened.”
Canada does not have a national board for safeguarding children, as is the case in Ireland. Last year, the CCCB announced a new standing committee tasked with advising the bishops on clergy sexual abuse. This committee, which includes four bishops first meets in January, with Archbishop Michael Miller as chair.
B.C. survivor Leona Huggins says that is not sufficiently independent. “It’s not nearly enough. It’s still the organization investigating itself,” Ms. Huggins said. “We need to be calling for an external review, and we need to be calling for a national inquiry.”
Clergy-abuse survivors have formed a new national group called Advocates for Clergy Trauma Survivors in Canada, which is calling on dioceses across Canada to publish names, with oversight from a third party. It also wants a papal apology and zero tolerance of abuse by clergy. Some survivors, such as Mr. McCabe, say if the church doesn’t comply with calls for greater transparency, governments should revoke its tax-exempt status.
For Mr. McCabe, the effects of abuse linger. He lost trust in his parents after the assault, and says it affected his personal relationships and contributed to alcoholism. “There’s regret, because I don’t know what my life would have been.”