The Faith to Heal
Our Opinion
Sexual Abuse Scandals Have Driven a Wedge in the Catholic Church in Northern Ontario

Sudbury Star [Canada]
September 23, 2003

Editorial - Contrition is the first of four stages of Roman Catholic penance. It is a sense of having done wrong, and it leads directly to confession, satisfaction and, eventually, absolution. Penance and the meaning of guilt are essential tenets of the Roman Catholic church, and as a veteran priest Thomas O’Dell would have helped hundreds on their way to absolution over the years.

Father O’Dell was the subject of a $1.4 million award given to “John Doe,” a 33-year-old Sudbury man who was a victim of “extreme deviancy,” both physical and mental, by O’Dell. The man was 10-15 years old during the abuse, which occurred from 1981-1986, while O’Dell was a parish priest in Lively. O’Dell is serving 30 months in Kingston Penitentiary after being convicted in 2000 for offences against John Doe.

In an interview with The Sudbury Star, Bishop Jean Louis Plouffe of the Diocese of Sault Ste. Marie called O’Dell’s crimes and the criminal and civil court cases that stemmed from them “a horror story.” He added that the church is anxious to put this chapter behind it and begin healing through “reconciliation with those directly involved. If this is the beginning of a healing process, I am happy. This is what I pray for.”

To observers, such concerns may seem too late, if not dubious, given the church’s vigorous defence of all charges. It appealed O’Dell’s criminal conviction, and then painted the victim as the author of his own problems during the civil trial. The victim’s lawyer told The Star the diocese has never offered an apology to the victim, or reached out to him in any way. Others have criticized the church for immediately retreating into a legal defence without attempting to minister to John Doe.

However, to vigorously defend oneself in court is every organization’s responsibility in Canada’s adversarial court system. Seen this way, the Catholic church simply fulfilled its legal obligation, which should not be confused with the church’s moral obligations to its parishioners.

The church is an irreplaceable part of its parishioners’ lives. It is there for baptisms, first communion, weddings and death, and thousands of life’s crises in between. As Plouffe told The Star, it is difficult for the church to come to grips with the horrors of sexual abuse of parishioners by its own clergy, but it must. By acknowledging the ongoing problem this abuse represents, Plouffe opens the door for the compassion, kindness and healing the church offers all parishioners. He has shown contrition, and expressed a willingness to lead the Catholic church down the path of absolution.

It will not be easy. The Catholic church needs to pioneer ways to deal with priests charged with abuse, to minister to those victimized by abuse, and to screen prospective clergy with psychological testing.

The Catholic church must also encourage victims to come forward, within the embrace of the church, and talk about their pain and suffering. The church must allow victims to reconcile the devotion that drew victims to the church in the first place with the abuse and subsequent anguish that drove them away.

The Catholic church, the Diocese of Sault Ste. Marie, and Bishop Plouffe must be judged on how far down the path of absolution they walk.

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