Church Allowed Accused to Leave Quietly

By Kim Bolan
The Vancouver Sun [Canada]
February 28, 2006

A B.C. man charged with indecently assaulting a mentally disabled resident at a Catholic group home in the late 1970s has continued to work with children at a Vancouver high school and churches in the U.S., despite admitting the abuse years ago.

Robert Gordon Viens, 50, was charged in May 2004 after Burnaby RCMP received complaints from two former residents of the L'Arche community in Burnaby that he had sexually assaulted them in the late 1970s. L'Arche is a residential community for mentally disabled residents that opened in 1974.

Viens, who now lives in Bellingham, faces two counts of indecent assault against a mentally disabled man, as well as one count of buggery and one of gross indecency for actions between Nov. 1, 1977, and Sept. 30, 1980.

One of the indecent assault counts was recently dropped because the complainant died. The remaining charges are due to go to trial in B.C. Supreme Court in October.

When the RCMP investigation began, Viens was fired in October 2003 from his job as music director with the Church of the Assumption, in Bellingham, which is part of the Catholic archdiocese of Seattle.

A letter written to Viens by the church's priest, Father Frank Schuster, says he had no choice but to dismiss the popular employee "due to past admitted incidents of sexual involvement with vulnerable persons under your care at L'Arche in 1978."

"It is necessary that I follow canon law for this particular church as set forth in the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. Article 5 of the charter states that 'for even a single act of sexual abuse of a minor -- past, present or future -- the offending priest or deacon will be permanently removed from ministry,' " says the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Vancouver Sun. "In this diocese, the terms of the charter are being applied to lay ministers as well as clergy, and to vulnerable adults as well as minors."

Schuster said in the letter that a church investigation showed Viens is not now a threat to the community.

"The decision to terminate you from ministry was an extremely difficult one for several reasons. First this action is being undertaken as a result of long-past acts. The investigation we conducted, with which you cooperated fully, did not provide any indication whatsoever that you pose a current risk to the community," Schuster said. "There have been no reports or evidence of any sexual abuse or misconduct during your employment at Assumption Parish."

Schuster's letter also said that if he is called as a reference for Viens, he will only disclose the sex abuse admission if the prospective employer is a Catholic agency.

"When asked by prospective employers who are not agents of the Catholic Church and others I will indicate only the dates of your employment, rate of pay, and that you left to pursue other interests," the letter says. "When asked by prospective employers who are agents of the Catholic Church, I will only share with them the contents of this letter."

Schuster's letter is dated Oct. 30, 2003, and says Viens met with him about the B.C. allegations on Oct. 9, 2003, in the presence of Mary Santi, the archbishop's delegate for human resources.

When asked about his letter outside Sunday mass this week Schuster referred calls about the case to the archdiocese's Seattle office. Schuster told The Sun he did not realize the case against Viens was public and he declined to explain why his letter said he would not disclose the abuse admission to prospective employers who are non-Catholic.

"I stand by what I said in that letter," said Schuster.

Viens was reached by telephone Monday at his Bellingham home, but declined to comment.

"I have nothing to say. My attorney will likely contact you."

Viens' Vancouver lawyer Janet Winteringham said he has pleaded not guilty. She said she was unaware of the Schuster letter and other documents obtained by The Sun.

Viens's firing came just a month after he filed an affidavit in his divorce proceedings in Washington superior court. In the document he admits the L'Arche abuse and says he confessed to it when confronted by three L'Arche staff members in 1980, while he was still working there.

Viens also admits in the sworn declaration, dated Sept. 22, 2003, that he abused another boy in B.C. for three years while Viens was aged 14 to 17, although he was never charged.

In the civil court document, Viens described living at L'Arche.

"I lived and worked as an assistant in this residential community for those with varied mental handicaps from 1978 to 1980. All of the people with handicaps participated fully in the everyday family-like atmosphere of the community as well as held jobs. They do require assistance in their respective areas of limitation, such as literacy, finance, etc. The sexual abuse occurred in 1978.

"Of my own accord, I stopped the behaviour, as I knew it was wrong and destructive to myself and all those impacted. On June 8, 1980, I was confronted by two other assistants with the allegation. I admitted my wrongdoing and of my own volition reported what I had done to the directors and other assistants of the community."

Viens says in the documents that he was prepared to deal with the consequences in 1980.

"Because L'Arche acknowledges that we are all handicapped, some of us less visibly so, solutions are sought to enable the person to become whole. Having ample evidence of what institutional incarceration does to people, they chose to see more holistic solutions."

So instead of a police report being made about the abuse in 1980, Viens was ordered to get counselling.

L'Arche's current executive director Landys Kline said she is aware of the criminal case against Viens, but that her board has instructed her not to say anything "because the matter is before the courts."

But she said the board will have further meetings in March to discuss the issues and may want to comment then.

Asked specifically whether L'Arche had a policy in 1980 to report suspected sex abuse to police, Kline reiterated that she has been told not to comment.

"The only thing I can respond is that I can't say anything at this point. This is what I have been given freedom to say by the board," she said.

She was able to say that L'Arche opened in Burnaby in 1974 with eight residents. It grew rapidly and now has 25 people living in its homes, as well as two day programs.

L'Arche Greater Vancouver is part of an international movement founded by Jean Vanier, son of the late Governor General Georges Vanier and his wife Pauline, to get mentally disabled people out of institutions and into the community.

Viens' bail conditions dictate that he not have contact with the former residents who filed the complaint or several former staff members.

The bail conditions do not prohibit Viens from being in the company of mentally disabled people or children.

Stan Low, who speaks for B.C.'s criminal justice branch, said the conditions would have been requested based on what was uncovered in the police investigation.

"He was arrested on May 7, 2004 and he was released on a no-contact with a number of witnesses," Low said. "Based on the information in the police report, we were content that these conditions would address any concerns from the perspective of the Crown and the public interest."

Greg Magnoni, spokesman for the Seattle archdiocese, said the church did everything it could do once it got a complaint about Viens' conduct.

"When we find out about any allegation of sexual abuse or misconduct or molestation or anything like that, the individual is immediately placed on administrative leave -- that was the case in this instance -- an investigation is conducted. If it is determined that the allegation is credible, the individual is terminated and that was the case in this instance," Magnoni said. "We handled this responsibly in order to protect children and to prevent any kind of an occurrence of this type within our inability to do so."

He said the church did a thorough forensic investigation into the complaint, although he could not provide details about who was interviewed.

"We have a private investigator who conducts these investigations and he would have contacted all the people he would have needed to contact to confirm or deny the charges," he said.

Asked about why a Catholic priest would agree not to disclose Viens' admission to some potential employers, Magnoni said he had not read the letter written to Viens by Schuster.

"I can't really speak to why we have that policy. I think we are under some obligation if we don't have verifiable evidence of something like this, that we are under some obligation to not be sharing things that we can't verify one way or the other," he said.

Viens stayed very involved with Catholic agencies after leaving L'Arche in 1980, according to his own court statement. He moved to New York and spent two years with the Focolare Movement, a Catholic lay group. He then returned to B.C. and began working at L'Arche again -- this time in the business office "allowing the healing to continue for all impacted," the document says.

He then studied at University of B.C. to be a teacher and spent six years afterwards at Vancouver's Notre Dame catholic high school, teaching music and religion.

He went to graduate school at Western Washington University in 1989 and then settled in the Bellingham area, getting work at Church of the Assumption -- the job he was forced out of when the RCMP investigation got underway in B.C.

Viens still volunteers with the Bellingham Theatre Guild and teaches private voice lessons to children at his home-based studio.

His affidavit denies that he has ever abused anyone after the one incident he admits to at L'Arche.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.