Tuesday 4 November 2014

In Defense of Toronto Priests and Laity, Sort Of

I guess it was inevitable. In the fallout of the Jian Ghomeshi scandal, a Toronto music critic named Carl Wilson has brought up the tragedy of the Catholic priest-predators in Slate . He was raised as a Catholic, and he says when the Catholic sex abuse scandal stories broke, he was glad he had quit church when he did.

However, I was born in the early 1970s and my family has lived in Toronto since 1900, and I have frequented very churchy circles, and I never heard the whisper of an abuse rumour against any Toronto priest until 2009 or so when an acquaintance in his fifties, a popular restauranteur, told me he stopped being Catholic because of a friar-teacher at his Toronto high school who used to pat and caress, and attempt to flirt with, him and other guys. My pal protested loudly, and nothing worse happened to him, but that sure put an end to his automatic Catholic kid respect for priests and religious.

So that's one Toronto priest out of dozens. There may be more, but by the time I moved to Scotland, that's the only one I had heard about. Oh, wait. That priest on a visa from Malta who assaulted an old woman in hospital. UGH.  If we count him, two. And there was no cover-up over him. [Update: sadly, now that I am checking up on all this on--don't click unless you want to be seriously depressed-- Sylvia's Site detailing Canadian charges, I am indeed finding a few more Toronto stories.]

I tried writing a comment in the combox of the Slate piece, but my computer is old, cranky and confused, and I lost it all.

What I wanted to communicate to Carl Wilson was "Why bring Catholics in to the Jian Ghomeshi scandal?" It's not like Wilson wanted to say, of his former community, "Gee, since I myself kept my mouth shut--and shushed a woman--about an influential man I needed to help me with my career, I totally understand now how and why people around abusive priests covered up for them." He didn't say that. And in using Pope Francis's recent remarks about the priest scandals, Wilson made it sound like Catholics are the normative community for this kind of abuse and cover up.

And that makes me furious because casual anti-Catholic bigotry makes me furious. And it particularly makes me furious in the context of  the priests of my home town. Bad stuff went down in Newfoundland--and how!--and in Ottawa and in St Catharines but not, to the best of my knowledge and excepting the gay Franciscan, Toronto. [Update: Best of my knowledge when I first wrote this post, that is. A quick check of Sylvia's Site--click at your own risk--has dashed that.]  But I do know a girl who was seduced by her Toronto Catholic high school teacher (not a priest), and the other teachers covered up for him like crazy. And why? Because a high school is an organization, and that's what organizations do. They protect the organization.

Catholic priests and, by extension, Catholics "who knew" are used as the measuring stick for communities dealing with sexual predators in their midst even though, in the USA, only 4% priests in ministry between 1950 and 2002 were ever accused and only 252 priests (5.7% of those accused) were convicted. If all of them were indeed guilty, and if all the rest were not, that means 252 sexual abusers among 109, 694 priests in a nation of--what?--in 2002, 287 million people.

My math skills are appalling, but 252 of 109,694 must be a very small percentage. And apparently there was one person in prison for every one hundred and forty three people in the USA by 2002. So 252 as a percentage of the American prison population is even smaller.

I work in Catholic media, and when the Bishop Lahey child p*rn scandal broke--Bishop Lahey is from Nova Scotia Newfoundland--I was so shocked and disgusted that I asked around about who knew what. And the only tip I got was that Bishop Lahey's staff knew he spent a lot of time in his office with this door locked. That's all they knew.  They simply didn't know he had a child porn habit.

And when I read that Bishop Lahey's defense attorney revealed that Bishop Lahey was a gay man living with a gay partner for ten years, I almost fell off my chair. One of my very well-connected Catholic reporter pals almost fell off his/her chair, too. How can a man--a bishop!-- keep something like that covered up? But does it really take the complicity and the knowing/not knowing of everyone else?

My guess is no.  If neither party says anything to anyone else, than the average person is not going to think a bishop and the man or woman he is talking to are sex partners. And in the case of an abusive priest, coach, doctor, teacher, social worker, parent--if he never says anything, and the vulnerable person never says anything, then there is no way anyone else is going to know.

But what the Jian Ghomeshi case illustrates is that sometimes people DO say something and OTHER people (including Carl Wilson) choose to ignore it or hush up people who talk about it a little too loudly. And to Carl Wilson's credit, he didn't know how badly Ghomeshi behaved. He just knew women on the one hand didn't seem to like him but on the other Ghomeshi always had his arms around women.

Another thing the Jian Ghomeshi scandal illustrates is that people don't want to believe that the people they like and look up to are sexual predators. Despite everything, the man still has over 90,000 "Likes" on his Facebook page. And it illustrates that the CBC (a powerful, respected, even symbolic institution) was willing to turn a deaf ear to rumours about their big star--to a point. It's to the CBC's credit that, unlike the BBC, it wasn't going to let their star get away with it for the rest of his life. The Jimmy Savile scandal didn't break until some time after he was dead and, oh the subsequent shame, someone in the UK's Catholic Herald complained that the fulsome obituaries never mentioned that Jimmy was a Catholic layman. Fortunately for the reputation of British Catholic laity, old Jimmy was better known for being a media man.

As a Canadian Catholic, I'm very much committed to ending sexual abuse of Catholics by other Catholics. And this is why I keep harping against four factors that facilitate abuse:

A. the built-in weakness of organizations in addressing the problem
B. celebrity worship
C. people thinking the "informal" priests, the charming priests, the priest who use curse words and are "down wit' the kids", the popular priests, are the best priests
D. blanket condemnation of gossip

When I was in theology school, two women and two gay men complained to me about sexual harassment. They named one layman, one male religious, one priest. Although I thought the layman and the priest were probably just beyond clueless, I sent the women to talk to a school authority and in the case of the gay guys, because I didn't know what else to do,  but it seemed serious, I went to a school authority myself. Little stuff not nipped in the bud could turn into big stuff. The correct response to Church gossip is not to condemn it or to pass it on with tut-tuts and giggles but to take it to the right authority. Hopefully our days of our authorities doing nothing are over.

As a Catholic, I have a strong interest in the safety and sanctity of Catholic children, teens, seminarians and other Catholics vulnerable to abuse. But also as a Catholic, I wish people would stop talking about Catholics and sexual abuse in the same breath. We've been taking out our trash since 2002.* Time for everyone else to get with the program.

*Sylvia's Site is one example of this. This is not to say anything on it should be taken as proven. But it is an example of Catholics staring evil plainly in the face and saying none of our priests should be able to get away with abusing us or anyone.


  1. Seraphic, Lahey was laicized in 2012; he is a bishop no longer (at least in temporal and authoritative manners; ontologically this might be different). I certainly will no longer call the man 'bishop'.

  2. Well, unfortunately for him, perhaps, he is a priest forever, in the line of Melchizadek. But I am sure laicizing him was the right decision. It would seem that he ought never to have been ordained to the priesthood in the first place!


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