Dealing with abuse a work in progress

The Catholic Register - Archdiocese of Toronto, Ontario, Canada

March 22, 2023

By Michael Swan

Publishing the names of credibly accused child sex abusers, as Canada’s Jesuit Fathers did March 12, is one small step toward creating a better Church, but it’s not enough for abuse survivor John Swales.

For Swales, who was sexually exploited by Fr. Barry Glendinning between 1969 and 1974 in London, Ont., transparency about past sexual abuse is a good first step. But transparency must be accompanied by accountability, Swales told The Catholic Register

“The question that needs to be answered is, ‘Why? Why are we here? What are we going to do about it?’ Accountability really reigns high,” he said. “If the question is, ‘Would that build a better Church?’ Absolutely.”

Swales won’t get an argument from Canada’s most recognized expert on clerical sexual abuse, Sr. Nuala Kenny.

“Transparency and accountability are key in atonement and developing a culture of safeguarding,” she said in an e-mail. “We are slowly learning how to implement them.”

Since serving on the Winter Commission that investigated the Mount Cashel child sexual abuse scandal in Newfoundland in 1989, Kenny has watched Church leadership slowly walk away from its impulse  to secrecy.

“There is no question that secrecy, silence, denial and cover-up are at the heart of all sexual abuse. They take a particular turn when the offender is a cleric, an Alter Christus, because sexual abuse is an abuse of power, position, trust and conscience,” Kenny said.

“Transparency and accountability are key in atonement and developing a culture of safeguarding … We are slowly learning how to implement them. “

– Sr. Nuala Kenny

It’s in that context that Kenny praises the Canadian Jesuits’ decision to publish the names of credibly accused abusers gleaned from 70 years of the order’s records.

“Canada’s Jesuits have acted with justice and prudence by publicly naming abusers in the order,” she said.

That such facts will be public and should be public is increasingly accepted among religious orders. For the Benedictines of Westminster Abbey in Mission, B.C., an hour’s drive east of Vancouver, conducting an audit and publishing names aren’t really an issue, said Abbot Alban Riley.

“Our small size means we don’t need an audit,” the Abbot said in an e-mail to The Catholic Register. “The only member accused, Fr. Placidus Sander, has been published by the Vancouver Archdiocese as part of their disclosure, because we run the Archdiocesan seminary.”

For the Basilian Fathers, an international order headquartered in Toronto, it’s a little more complicated. For the last 17 years the Basilians have entrusted monitoring their sexual abuse policies and management of cases to an outside consulting company that specializes in sexual abuse policies in all sorts of organizations, religious and secular. The Basilians’ contract with Praesidium Inc., based in Arlington, Tex., effectively subjects the order to a permanent audit.

“The decision to release a list of those credibly accused is very complicated,” Basilian superior general Fr. Kevin Storey said in an e-mail.

While that complicated question remains open, Storey points to significant safeguarding and accountability now baked into Basilian life. “Since 1992, all candidates for the Basilian Fathers must pass psychological screening by independent assessors and have annual reviews and growth plans,” Storey said. 

Without question and without hesitation, the Basilians call the police and co-operate in all legal investigations whenever one of their own is accused, said Storey. 

They also call in a review board of lay professionals to review incidents, even if they don’t rise to the level of a police investigation.

For the Canadian Oblates of Lacombe Province, who operated 48 of Canada’s infamous residential schools, naming names is only one part of providing greater transparency — though it’s a step they haven’t taken yet.

“Over the last year, we have heard calls for additional transparency and are actively reviewing how other religious entities —including the Jesuits — have approached additional disclosures,” provincial superior Fr. Ken Thorson told The Catholic Register in an e-mail. “With an aim to identifying any possible improvements that balance the need for transparency and respect for victims’ right to privacy.”

That said, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate “support any victim or survivor who chooses to do so (publicly name their abuser) and expect secular authorities to report any charges and convictions,” Thorson said.

While there are many legal questions around going public with the names of abusers, lawyer Mary Margaret MacKinnon doesn’t believe that victim privacy or possible re-traumatizing of victims is the big issue.

“There may be the occasional victim who feels traumatized by seeing a photo of somebody, but I’ve worked with lots of victims groups as well and they would say the value of having some information about these people so we can move forward with our healing far outweighs the few people who can just not look at that picture again. I don’t buy that,” MacKinnon told The Catholic Register.

MacKinnon, of Guild Yule LLP, headed up the Archdiocese of Vancouver’s 2019 audit of nearly 80 years of abuse files, and has consulted with religious orders across Canada on similar audits. The big issue when it comes to publishing names is a clear definition of “credibly accused.”

“Publishing the names of offenders can become an opportunity for the Catholic Church to confront its past in order to better its future.”

– Hans Zollner

“It’s not 51 per cent. It’s going to be something where you have some solid basis for believing those allegations are true,” MacKinnon said.

How we define “credibly accused” matters even more if the people named are still alive. The threat of libel action is not insubstantial, particularly in Canada where there is no First Amendment-free speech right to hide behind. There’s also the issue of provinces, such as British Columbia, which have Protection of Individual Privacy Acts (PIPA) that enshrine privacy rights in the law. Even in provinces that don’t have PIPA legislation, a reasonable right to privacy is part of common law and will be given deference in courts. 

Gregorian University psychology professor and Pope Francis’ point man on sexual abuse, Jesuit Fr. Hans Zollner, is in favour of publishing names when possible.

“Publishing the names of offenders can become an opportunity for the Catholic Church to confront its past in order to better its future,” Zollner told The Catholic Register in an e-mail. “The act of recognizing not only those who have betrayed their ministry, but also how abuse was allowed to continue without accountability can help dioceses and religious communities enact the necessary means to prevent it from happening again and to fully endorse much-needed protocols and guidelines to protect minors and vulnerable adults.”

The legal landscape around the world doesn’t always make this possible. “North Americans are quite surprised when they learn that, according to data protection law, the publication of full names even of convicted criminals is not allowed in the European Union, with some exceptions, let alone the names of persons who are alleged or credibly accused offenders,” Zollner said.

The Church also faces significant cultural barriers in parts of the world where it is a large presence and growing — Africa and Latin America.

“Sexuality and especially sexual misconduct very often isn’t spoken about in families or society, either due to shame or because it is considered a taboo subject,” Zollner said. He fears a future in which the media and courts will force transparency on reluctant Church institutions.

“It is imperative that individual bishops’ conferences and dioceses present in those regions find an effective way to respond to victims and to be transparent and accountable, in full accordance with the laws of states or countries, and help to modify cultural barriers around such society/family/Church secrets,” he said.