|Disgraced Priest Left Legacy of Pain
Bishop Convicted in 1996 of Sex Crimes against Aboriginal Women in the 1960s
By Tom Hawthorn
The Globe and Mail
July 28, 2007
Canada — Hubert O'Connor, who has died at 79, was a priest and an educator whose predatory sexual practices were revealed only long after he had become a bishop.
The disgraced church official resigned as bishop of the British Columbia diocese of Prince George after being charged with sex crimes in 1991.
He was convicted in 1996 of committing rape and indecent assault on two young aboriginal women during the 1960s when he was a priest. He was sentenced to 2½ years in prison by Mr. Justice Wally Oppal, who is now British Columbia's Attorney-General. After serving six months, the bishop was released on $1,000 bail.
The B.C. Court of Appeal later acquitted him of the sexual assault of a student at a Williams Lake residential school, where he was principal.
The appeal court also set aside his conviction for rape of a school secretary, ordering a new trial.
Instead, authorities agreed to drop the rape charge after the former bishop apologized to his accuser in 1998 at a traditional native healing circle held at Alkali Lake, a small native village near Williams Lake in the B.C. Interior.
At the ceremony, during which he listened to friends and family of the woman, as well as to aboriginal elders, he admitted to breaking his vow of chastity, though he did not admit to committing rape.
Afterward, Marilyn Belleau, whose identity had been protected by a publication ban, got permission from the court to have the ban lifted so that she could speak publicly about her ordeal.
"I was able to express to O'Connor exactly how I felt and how I had to live with the pain he had caused me," she told reporters at the time. "O'Connor no longer has power over me."
Reached yesterday at the Alkali Lake band office where she now works, the woman reflected on the healing ceremony that came nine years after she had filed a complaint with police.
"It brought a little bit of closure," she said. "But it still didn't undo the damage that was done. I still wanted to hold him accountable for that."
The O'Connor case became a symbol for many of the difficulties in having the justice system handle aboriginal complaints of abuse at church-run residential schools.
News accounts of courtroom testimony generated headlines for several years. Two students and two workers, all over 18, alleged they were sexually assaulted by the priest in the 1960s, when he was principal of St. Joseph's Mission School, near Williams Lake. As both an educator and an employer, not to mention spiritual guide, the priest was said to be a figure of considerable authority.
In an affidavit, Mr. O'Connor insisted his relationships with the women were consensual.
He admitted to fathering a child who was placed up for adoption.
In a second trial, he faced two charges of rape - as the crime was defined at the time - and two charges of sexual assault.
A former student testified he had ordered her to clean his bathroom before pulling her onto his bed and saying: "Let's have some fun."
A former secretary who lived and worked at the school she had also attended as a student, testified the priest came to her room when she was sick at Christmastime. She said he had promised her a Christmas gift of a statue of the Virgin Mary before feeling her breasts and trying to kiss her.
Judge Oppal dismissed charges that Mr. O'Connor raped a woman who bore his child and assaulted another woman, due to inconsistencies in their testimony.
The convictions on the other two sex charges were hailed by native leaders. It also led to heated debate in other venues. Hubert Patrick O'Connor was born on Feb. 17, 1928, at Huntingdon, Que.
He was ordained to the priesthood in 1955 as a member of the Oblate of Mary Immaculate. He worked mostly with aboriginal communities, becoming bishop of Whitehorse in Yukon in 1971. In 1986, he was named bishop of Prince George.
He retained the honorific of most reverend and held the title of bishop emeritus.
The bishop had once said during a bail hearing that "if I had not broken my vow of chastity, I would not be here today. I have paid a very heavy price."
His death by heart attack in Toronto on Tuesday was announced by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.
He leaves a sister and two brothers. He was predeceased by a brother and two sisters.
A mass is to be held on Aug. 7 at St. Augustine's Church in Vancouver, which is where his ordination as a bishop took place in December of 1971. The mass will be followed by burial at the Oblate Cemetery in Mission.
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