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Bernard Prince in a 1979 photo.

More than a decade before police got wind that a priest had molested several altar boys in small towns in the Ottawa Valley, Vatican and Canadian church officials knew about the matter and discussed in a letter how to keep it secret.

The letter, written in 1993, focused on protecting the church's image by preventing the scandal from becoming public - the very essence of an international wave of allegations now battering the Roman Catholic clergy and the Vatican.

"It is a situation which we wish to avoid at all costs," the late Bishop Joseph Windle of Pembroke, Ont., wrote in Feb. 10, 1993, to the Pope's envoy to Canada, Carlo Curis.

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The man Bishop Windle was writing about was then-monsignor Bernard Prince, now 75, a friend of the late Pope John Paul II who had just been posted to the Vatican as a high-ranking official working with missionary societies.

The year before Mr. Prince was sent to Rome, a man had complained to the diocese that the priest had molested him when he was a child. At least one Vatican archbishop, Jose Sanchez, now a cardinal, had been warned about Mr. Prince's problem before he was sent to Rome, Bishop Windle said in the letter.

Bishop Windle wrote that he told Cardinal Sanchez that he agreed with posting Mr. Prince to the Vatican. "While the charge against Fr. Prince was very serious, I would not object to him being given another chance since it would remove him from the Canadian scene."

In his letter to the papal nuncio, Bishop Windle cautioned the Vatican to avoid honouring Mr. Prince because it could anger victims and prompt them to contact police.

"The consequences of such an action would be disastrous, not only for the Canadian church but for the Holy See as well," the bishop wrote.

It would only be in May, 2005, that a victim contacted the Ontario Provincial Police. Mr. Prince is now defrocked and serving a four-year sentence after being convicted in 2008 of sexually molesting 13 boys between 1964 and 1984.

The Canadian Catholic Church boasted for years that it has been a global model in implementing protocols - specifically the recommendations of the 1992 report From Pain to Hope - that would block cover-ups by senior officials of sexual misdeeds by priests. A key recommendation was that bishops should immediately report to police allegations of priestly sexual assaults on minors.

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Bishop Windle's letter was penned the year after the report was published.

The four-page letter - an exhibit filed this week in a civil suit - is the first court document to buttress the long-held belief by victims of Mr. Prince that the clergy had known of the problem for years but tried to hush it up.

It shows that the church hierarchy was aware that the allegations were serious since they involved up to five victims, were of "considerable duration" and triggered "traumatic memories" in one or two victims who needed counselling.

The allegations were so grave that the future cardinal Aloysius Ambrozic, then archbishop of Toronto, warned Mr. Prince he was not welcome in the Toronto archdiocese unless he had undergone psychiatric treatment, the letter said.

In additional to Cardinal Ambrozic, the letter says that the Canadian church officials aware of the allegations included Anthony Tonnos, the bishop of Hamilton; Francis Spence, who was archbishop of Kingston; the late Joseph Wilhelm, the previous archbishop of Kingston; John O'Mara, who was bishop of Thunder Bay; and Marcel Gervais, then the archbishop of Ottawa.

"All of the Bishops of Ontario who are aware of this situation (and there are several) would most certainly agree with my assessment in this regard," Bishop Windle wrote in the letter.

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Bishop Windle and the nuncio had discussed the matter before, by telephone and fax, the letter said.

"The knowledge and the extent of Father Prince's previous activity is now much more widespread among both the laity and the clergy then previously existed," Bishop Windle wrote.

"Hence, were he to be honoured in any way, it could easily trigger a reaction among the victim(s) or others who are aware of this previous conduct, and this would prove extremely embarrassing both for the Holy See and the archdiocese of Pembroke, not to mention the possibility of criminal charges being laid and a civil suit ensuing."

Mr. Prince, who grew up in Wilno, a Polish settlement 180 kilometres west of Ottawa, became friends with Cardinal Karol Wojtila before the latter became Pope. To Canadians visiting the Vatican, he was known as a channel to the Pope. In the autobiography of Céline Dion, there is a photo of the pop diva being introduced to John Paul II by Mr. Prince in 1984.

From 1991 until he retired in 2004, Mr. Prince worked at the Vatican as second in command at the Pontifical Society for the Propagation of the Faith, which promotes and supports missionary work. It was during that time that he received the honorific title of Monsignor.

The letter was written after a 34-year-old man complained to church officials in October, 1990, that he had been a victim of Mr. Prince while he was a boy.

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"At that time we were under the impression that the incident was isolated, in the distant past, and there was little or no danger of any scandal ever emerging," the letter said.

The complainant assured the diocese vicar-general, Monsignor Michael Barry, that he wouldn't contact the police but wanted to make sure Mr. Prince would be supervised and counselled, the letter said.

The complainant had concerns because he learned that Mr. Prince had been spotted in Thailand, dining with someone from the Canadian embassy. "Hence the victim felt he [Mr. Prince]was not being properly supervised as he was travelling alone and extensively."

The letter said it is "fortunate" that many of the victims were of Polish ancestry, devout Catholics who would be less likely to complain to secular authorities.

Charles Gibson, the lawyer for the Pembroke diocese, did not reply to a phone call and an e-mail about the civil suits.

With reports from Celia Donnelly and Michael Valpy

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Bernard Prince - history of a downfall

  • 1934 April 27 - Bernard Ambrose Prince born in Wilno, Ont.
  • 1963 May 11 - Ordained at Wilno's St. Mary's Church.
  • 1963-1966 - Postgraduate degree in Rome in canon law.
  • 1964 - First sexual abuse with young boys for which Mr. Prince would later be convicted.
  • 1968 - A sexual-abuse complaint about Mr. Prince is reported to the Pembroke diocese, according to a civil-suit statement of claim.
  • 1969-1975 - Appointed assistant general-secretary of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.
  • 1974 - Master's degree in Slavic studies, Ottawa University.
  • 1976 - Master's degree in history of religion, University of Notre Dame, Indiana.
  • 1976-1977 - Enrolled in a course at National Defence College in Kingston.
  • 1981-1984 - Appointed again as assistant general-secretary of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.
  • 1987 - Director of the Pontifical Mission Societies for English-speaking Canada.
  • 1990 October - A 34-year-old man tells area priest that he had been molested as a child by Mr. Prince. He later discusses the matter with Michael Barry, vicar-general for the Pembroke diocese.
  • 1991 - Mr. Prince is sent to Rome as secretary-general of the Pontifical Society for the Propagation of the Faith.
  • 1993 February 10 - Pembroke bishop Joseph Windle writes to papal nuncio Carlo Curis.
  • 2004 - Mr. Prince retires.
  • 2005 May - The Killaloe OPP detachment receives a complaint from a man saying he had been molested in 1969.
  • 2005 October - The OPP issues an arrest warrant for Mr. Prince.
  • 2008 Jan. 14 - Mr. Prince found guilty of sexually molesting 13 boys between 1964 and 1984.
  • 2009 May 4 - Pope Benedict XVI issues the decree defrocking Mr. Prince.
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