CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) [Toronto, Canada]
June 4, 2023
By Rachel Bergen
[Photo above: Fr. Arul Savari was a priest at St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church in Little Grand Rapids. This photo was posted to his Facebook page in December 2018. Advocates for people abused by priests want to see greater oversight and screening of foreign-educated members of the clergy who come to Canada. (Arul Savari/Facebook)]
Canada has no standard requirement for background checks for people coming to Canada doing religious work
There are too few checks and balances for international members of the clergy who come to work in Canada, according to a group that advocates for survivors of sexual abuse at the hands of religious leaders.
A Roman Catholic priest has been accused of sexually assaulting an eight-year-old girl in a remote Manitoba First Nation, and the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) says it’s too easy for a foreign priest to be seconded into a Canadian congregation by using religious visas, with little, if any, scrutiny of their backgrounds.
“There has to be a higher screening and a higher supervision rate when it comes to just allowing someone to come in and drop their bags into a parish community,” said Mike McDonnell, a spokesperson for the network in an interview from his home near Philadelphia on Friday.
Arul Savari, 48, who is originally from India, is facing a myriad of charges involving the alleged assault of the girl in Little Grand Rapids First Nation, and Manitoba RCMP say they’ve identified other potential victims.
The eight-year-old girl was alone with the priest after he asked her to help him clean the church when he allegedly touched her inappropriately, RCMP said earlier this week.
Savari has been living in Winnipeg for six years and served in Little Grand Rapids for the same amount of time. He serves the Catholic Church under the Archbishop of St. Boniface.
Savari was also the priest at nearby Pauingassi First Nation.
As far as RCMP are aware, the priest only served in those two First Nations while in Canada.
After his arrest, the Archdiocese of St. Boniface said Savari was suspended from all ministerial duties and “forbidden to have anything to do with former parishioners and children.”
Alistair Clarke, an immigration lawyer in Winnipeg says that from an immigration perspective, it’s not a standard requirement for people who enter the country as religious workers exempt from work permits to provide a background check or child abuse registry.
He said the federal government would rely on the employer or the religious institution to do that check.
A border patrol officer would have the authority to check on the person’s background if there are concerns about their criminal background, Clarke said.
It’s not clear how Savari entered Canada, or if he had an exemption for a work permit because he is a religious worker.
In 2017, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted a policy to verify identity, screen for criminal background and child abuse history, and encouraged other dioceses to adopt it. At that time, many dioceses had a similar policy in place.
The Archdiocese of St. Boniface has a policy in place that asks all church employees and volunteers over 18 to submit to a criminal record check and a child abuse registry check.
Little Grand Rapids Chief Oliver Owen met with Archbishop Albert Legatt on Friday afternoon and said the archbishop had checked with Savari’s previous employer before he was brought to Canada, but didn’t check with police there.
CBC News has asked a number of questions of the Archdiocese on Thursday and Friday and didn’t receive a response as of Friday evening.
McDonnell says fewer people are becoming ordained in the Catholic Church, so it must seek workers in other countries to fill roles in Canada.
The says it doesn’t track how many priests are from outside the country.
Abuse in church ‘a thing of the present’: SNAP
The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, an organization with more than 25,000 members and support groups in over 60 cities worldwide, monitors arrests of religious figures for allegations of abuse with the help of its partners.
McDonnell says some may think that abuse carried out by Catholic leaders was a historical issue, but for the last two years, at least two people in positions of authority have been arrested for abuse per month globally, according to the network’s own numbers.
“It just goes to show that despite what church officials say, that this is a thing of the past, it is far from the thing of the past. It’s very much a thing of the present,” he said.
Sue Caribou, a survivor of the Catholic church-run Guy Hill Residential School near The Pas, Man., says she was disturbed by the news of the assault.
“It’s still happening. When is it ever going to stop,” she said in an interview on Thursday.
Although not a victim of sexual abuse herself, Caribou says she witnessed the luring and abuse of other children at Guy Hill when she was forced to attend, and grew up learning about roadblocks to telling the truth.
“People won’t believe you and you’ll be judged in the community and there’s a lot of obstacles to come forward,” she said.
Caribou believes there needs to be more rigorous screening of religious leaders going into communities, including by the First Nations leadership.
“We don’t know who this person is. We don’t know anything about the person that’s coming into the community to preach,” she said.
McDonnell echoes that call and says the federal government has a responsibility to protect Canadians by ensuring cracks in the system are closed by requiring a background check.
“We feel that it has to fall on the shoulders of the government to be able to protect its people and certainly the most vulnerable of our society. These measures need to be put in place so that we are not talking about this again in 10 years.”
Both the Vatican ambassador to Canada and the Archdiocese of St. Boniface should also be held responsible for Savari, McDonnell said.
Additional abuse cases recently surfaced in Canada
Last week, it came to light that one of the most notorious child abusers in Newfoundland and Labrador history has popped up in another investigation into allegations of Catholic child abuse in the United States.
Ronald Lasik, a member of the Christian Brothers of Ireland until his death in 2020, is one of 451 men “credibly accused” of abusing children in Illinois while holding a position of authority affiliated with the church, according to an investigation by that state’s attorney general.
Lasik is well-known for his time at the Mount Cashel Orphanage in St. John’s during the 1950s, where he is convicted of abusing six children. He was sentenced to 11 years in prison in 1999.
“Where there is money, there’s often cover ups of crimes involving children and vulnerable adults,” McDonnell said.
“I absolutely truly believe that this is one of the darkest periods in the Church’s existence and most likely the most challenging since the Protestant Reformation.”
Rachel Bergen is a journalist for CBC Manitoba and previously reported for CBC Saskatoon. Email story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.