It's Just a Cruel Thing to Do," Retired Madison Priest Says of Being on Sex Abuse List.
By Sara Fowler
Mississippi Clarion Ledger
March 19, 2019
|The Rev. Paul Canonici, now retired, is shown in this file photo. He was on a list of more than a dozen priests accused of sexual abuse. The list was released Tuesday by the Jackson Diocese. (Photo: Clarion Ledger)|
For more than 70 years, the Rev. Paul Victor Canonici has been a prominent figure in the Mississippi Catholic community. On Tuesday, he was one of 37 identified by the church who has been "credibly accused" of sexual abuse.
In his Madison home Monday afternoon, Canonici, 91, spoke for over an hour about the allegations against him.
"I'm not aware that I have abused, that I have done anything that was sexually abusive to people," he said.
A native of Shaw, Canonici joined the priesthood when he was 30 years old. Over the course of his tenure, he served as the diocesan superintendent of education, assistant principal and then principal of St. Joseph High School in Madison, as well as the priest for multiple parishes throughout the Jackson metro area.
He retired when he was in his mid 70s, he said, but remained active in the church. Despite his five decades with the diocese, he's not listed on the church's website of retired priests.
Canonici: 'I feel like I have saved St. Joe' during integration
Canonici said he's "devastated" to be named on the list of accused priests and feels like the process is "unfair."
"I'm not bragging, but I feel like I have saved St. Joe," he said. "When it was dying, the school was dying, and I was superintendent, they called me in right in the middle of the integration crisis, and I had to deal with all that and I feel that this is the appreciation that I get. I just don't think it's fair."
He added, "I've dealt with two or three generations of people and the people who know me best are the people who would know whether — I feel that people are panicking. In other words, bishops feel like they've got to do something. It's just a cruel thing to do to people and I'm very disturbed about it.
"I feel that, if somebody accuses you, you have absolutely no chance of anything. I've dealt with people so long, actually with young people. People who know me, you can ask anybody that has dealt with me in school, in church or otherwise."
Canonici admits to two allegations against him
Canonici said, to his knowledge, there were two allegations against him. Before speaking with the Clarion Ledger, he said he had told only one person of the allegations.
The diocese did not provide details on the allegations, and Canonici said he did not remember certain specifics, including a timeline of when each alleged event took place and when the accusations were made.
Canonici said he was called by then-Bishop William Houck to answer for both allegations. Nothing came of either allegation, he said.
One allegation, Canonici said, was of an alleged incident involving a boy in a restaurant bathroom during a church event. The bishop questioned Canonici sometime during the 1970s, but the incident allegedly occurred years before when he was a priest at St. Francis in Madison, likely in the late 1960s, he said.
Canonici denied any inappropriate contact with the boy who made the allegations.
"We weren't even using the bathroom at (the) restaurant," he said.
The second allegation came from the son of a family with whom he was close, Canonici said. Canonici had been the child's father's high school principal, and the two men talked on the phone "every day."
"I was at his house a lot," Canonici said. "I probably embraced — you know how a kid will come up to an adult — I probably did that but certainly no more than that."
Canonici said he was called in by the bishop "maybe 20" years ago after the boy, who was then in his 20s, complained to the bishop of an incident that he said occurred when he was a young child. The child is now "in his mid-40s" Canonici said.
"I can't figure why he — when I knew him, he was small," Canonici said. "The parents were there all the time. They were there all the time."
According to Canonici, the bishop talked to the boy's father after the allegation was made.
"The bishop told me he called the father in, and the father said the kid was hallucinating," he said.
After the allegation, the boy's father stopped communicating with Canonici and "acted strange," the retired priest said.
"I suppose that the father was embarrassed over it with me," he said. "He used to call me every day. We were good friends, you know, and then it turned. I supposed he was embarrassed over the thing."
Looking back, Canonici said, "I guess I should have gone to the parents and talked to them, but I figured the thing was settled."
'I'm not aware of any abusive behavior I've had with kids'
When asked directly if he had sexually abused anyone, Canonici said, "I'm not aware of any abusive behavior I've had with kids."
"It's just devastating when you're accused of something," he said. "I'm in the community here with all these people. I'm glad that it comes out while I'm still alive and I can sit and talk with you about it."
When asked again if he had ever abused anyone, Canonici said, "If there was anything, I was not aware of it. Sometimes people take words or actions that you've done but I'm not really even aware of that."
"It's a terrible thing to do to people," Canonici said. "The church wants to do the right thing, feel like 'we've got to have transparency' so I really am devastated...I feel this is a cruel thing that is being done to me."
Canonici defends fellow priests
Canonici defended two other priests — the Rev. Thomas Boyce, now deceased, and the Rev. Robert Olivier, who lives in an assisted living facility in Madison. Both were on the list released Tuesday.
Boyce was a diocesan priest. He was accused of abusing a 14-year-old girl in 1973 when he was at St. Peter in Jackson. The alleged abuse continued as the victim aged, until 1982, according to the diocese.
A diocesan priest, Olivier was accused of having "inappropriate sexual contact, but not intercourse, with a teenage parishioner" in the 1950s, according to a 2007 statement from the diocese. Olivier admitted to the contact, the diocese previously stated, which lasted over a four-year period. He was removed from the ministry in 2006.
"Tommy Boyce practically went crazy, and I think he really brought himself to death ... after they called him in," Canonici said.
Of Olivier, Canonici said, "He lost his mind over this thing.
"(Olivier's) thing came out in the paper, a student of his. You know these little girls that hang around the priests. The paper article said that, you can look it up, it's still on the internet, that he — there was no intercourse. What was there?
"It's so unfair. That man has lost his mind."
When asked if he was defending Boyce and Olivier, Canonici said, "I'm defending them because I felt, and everybody else felt, that Bob Olivier was done in, really.
"With Father Olivier, everybody knows that this was unjust. The paper said there was no intercourse, OK? Obviously, I don't know if it was a minor. It was probably a high school girl. Poor Bob, you can go over and see him, and he's laid up in a hospital bed. He doesn't know where he is. He's lost his mind over the thing.
"From what I knew, they were done in. From what I knew. I didn't know anything else. Of course, you don't know the full story."
Canonici says timing of list release is 'awful'
Canonici said he's facing his own set of health problems. He's currently on multiple medications and is dealing with "fluid in my system." He said he was hospitalized for nine days for critically low sodium levels last year, and he had a car accident in December.
The release of the lists comes at an "awful" time, he said.
Friends and family will be "shocked," he said. During the interview, Canonici paused several times. After a moment, he said, "Maybe people won't be shocked, but I feel that they will be."
When asked if he was worried about public reaction, Canonici said, "I know the people who know me well, they know me. I have a lot of friends around me. I'm not worried about what people will say. I'm just worried about the embarrassment that my family will have."
Personally, however, Canonici said, "I feel distressed over this thing.
"I love my church, and I don't blame the church for doing this to me, but I blame poor judgement on somebody's part."