Confession sacred but other options to act on abuse: witness

By Barb Sweet
April 20, 2016

Mount Cashel civil trial recessed until June

The confidential seal of the confessional cannot be broken by a priest, but there are other options for a priest who hears of a sexual abuse allegation there, a witness suggested in Newfoundland Supreme Court today.

The priest risks ex-communication if he divulges what was said to him in confession, Fr. Thomas Doyle, a canon lawyer from the Washington D.C. area, told claimants' lawyer Geoff Budden in the Mount Cashel civil trial.

The seal means nothing the confessor says in confession can be revealed in any way.

The John Doe lawsuit against the RC Episcopal Corp. of St. John’s seeks compensation and involves four test cases that claim the church should be held liable for the physical and sexual abuse of boys at the orphanage by certain Christian Brothers during the period late 1940s to early 1960s. The test cases represent about 60 claimants in the case being pursued by Budden and Associates.

The church contends it did not run the orphanage, therefore is not responsible for actions of the lay order Christian Brothers there.

Doyle said the most ordinary option taken by priests being told of abuse has been to tell the confessor to avoid the situation and to take penance.

Another option – in the case of a boy telling a priest in confession about being abused at an institution — would be for a priest to advise the boy to go to an authority at the institution and reveal what happened.

But he said, the priest could also ask to meet with the boy outside confession where the boy could reveal the same information.

The priest could also have taken the option of telling the archbishop in a vague way — one that does not give away the confession — that he heard of inappropriate things going on, Doyle suggested.

The court has already heard testimony from former residents of abuse at the orphanage being told in confession.

Doyle allowed in cross examination by Susan Adam Metzler, lawyer for the Episcopal Corp., that the archbishop did not manage the day-to-day operations of the Brothers.

But he maintains that the archbishop had a obligation if he became aware of a serious canonical crime to intervene and investigate, but must do so through the proper channels of going up the ladder through the Christian Brothers' organization.

From his readings of 1980s inquiry reports on the failings of justice and other agencies in the Mount Cashel scandal, Doyle is of the opinion that obligation was not met by the archbishop of the era.

But those reports are not evidence in the civil trial.

Lawyers for the RC Episcopal Corp. have their own canon lawyer expected to testify later.

It's up to Justice Alphonsus Faour at the conclusion of arguments to decide whether the church was liable for any abuse at the orphanage during the 1940s-60s era in question.

The civil trial, which entered its thirteenth day Wednesday has recessed now until June 6.

Full story online and in print Thursday.


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