Longtime bishop's legacy tainted by sex abuse scandals

By Jennifer Bieman
LondFree Press
August 14, 2019

Retired Bishop John Sherlock.

A funeral is set for longtime London-area Bishop John Sherlock, a retired Catholic leader some say has a mixed legacy amid clergy sex abuse scandals that shone a harsh spotlight on his diocese.

The former bishop, who spent more than two decades at the helm of the Diocese of London, died Monday at the age of 93.

Visitation will be held at St. Peter’s Cathedral Basilica, 196 Dufferin Ave, London, from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday and from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. Friday, when Sherlock’s funeral mass will take place.

Born in Regina in 1926, Sherlock was raised in Brantford, one of eight children. He entered St. Augustine’s Seminary in Toronto after high school. Two of his brothers also became priests.

He was ordained in 1950, became the head of the Diocese of London in 1978 — a district that includes more than 130 parishes from Windsor to Huron County with about 440,000 parishioners.

He spent 24 years as the London-area bishop, championing changes to the diocese’s ministry directives and promoting social justice, Catholic health care and education throughout the region.

“He was a very personable person. He wasn’t shy, I found him friendly and outgoing all the time. He was always willing to talk and always willing to listen too,” said John Jevnikar, the chair of the London District Catholic school board.

Sherlock was elected the president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1983 and given the task of organizing Pope John Paul II’s visit to Canada the following year.

“Bishop Sherlock accompanied the Pope during the cross-country visit in September 1984, an odyssey which resulted in a lasting friendship between the two,” the Diocese of London said in a statement Tuesday.

“The papal visit was one of the highlights of Bishop Sherlock’s episcopacy, and indeed of his life.”

Sherlock remained in London after his retirement in 2002, hearing confessions and attending mass until late 2018.

But the Diocese of London was plagued by controversy during Sherlock’s tenure. He led the diocese at a time when it — and others in the Catholic church — were dogged by revelations of sexual abuse by parish priests.

At least 18 priests in the region have been criminally charged, convicted or sued for sexual abuse including Charles Sylvestre, who was convicted in 2006 of 47 counts of indecent assault spanning four decades. He died in 2007, just months into his three-year sentence.

Civil and criminal trial proceedings in the 1990s and 2000s raised serious questions about what Sherlock and other high-ranking church officials knew about the predator priests in the diocese, when they knew and how they handled them, said London lawyer Rob Talach, who represented several clergy sex abuse victims.

“There was no question he was committed to his church, but it was beyond any reason or logic,” said Talach, who cross-examined Sherlock during a 2011 civil trial involving one of Sylvestre’s victims.

“Bishop Sherlock’s passing causes me to actually hope that there is in fact an all-seeing deity who will judge him for all of his acts and omissions during his tenure.”

At the civil trial, Sherlock said he wished he could have helped Sylvestre’s sexual-assault victims “better than I did,” but also said he didn’t fail the diocese in his dealings with the predator priest — including reassigning him to a post away from children and not notifying his former parishes — once he knew about the Sylvestre’s abuse of little girls.

“I don’t have any bad conscience for what I did,” he said at the time.

Sherlock issued a public apology to sexual abuse victims in 2002, followed by another by current Bishop Ronald Fabbro in 2006. Last fall, in the wake of a Pennsylvania clergy abuse scandal, the diocese issued another public statement to parishioners.

John Swales, who successfully sued the London-area diocese and priest Barry Glendinning in 2004 over sexual abuse dating back to the 1970s, said he sat down with Sherlock a few months ago.

“I knew he was not well and I wanted to give us an opportunity to talk and reconnect, to clear the air,” he said. “When I sat with him, I would suggest he was a fallible human being who did what he did under the circumstances.”

The clergy sex abuse firestorm put the diocese on the defensive, Swales said. He sought the meeting with the retired bishop for a bit of closure.

“My purpose in meeting him wasn’t to eke out an apology,” he said. “I’ve been pretty combative in days gone by and I wanted to make sure I was kind to him.”



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