Catholic Church Sex Abuse Scandals | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Catholic Church Sex Abuse Scandals

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on July 22, 2002. Partner content is not updated.

It's a face that has played host to a lot of fists. John Caruso's nose is crooked, there are reminders of past stitches around the corners of his eyes, and his forehead has as many bumps as a corduroy road.

Catholic Church Sex Abuse Scandals

It's a face that has played host to a lot of fists. John Caruso's nose is crooked, there are reminders of past stitches around the corners of his eyes, and his forehead has as many bumps as a corduroy road. Battle scars from his two seasons as a Junior B tough guy, plus the years of rage- and alcohol-fuelled bar brawls that followed. Sitting in a quiet corner of a Toronto restaurant, he rolls up a sleeve to show the evidence of the deeper fight he's been waging, the one that underlies all his anger. "And of course, everyone has one of the these," he deadpans, nodding towards the ugly pink scar just below the elbow. "All told, I've tried to kill myself at least 12 times."

Caruso is articulate about the depths of his unhappiness. There was the time he shut the garage door and left the car running. The bottles of pills he swallowed. The day he took the boat far out into Lake Erie and tried to work up the gumption to swim away. "For every reason that everyone else is glad to be alive, I'm not," says the 33-year-old collections manager for a credit card company. "I have problems at work. I've had a new best friend every year for the past 18 years. Relationships are impossible. I have a girlfriend now, but a month from now, I won't have her." And he knows just who he blames for his troubles - the Catholic priest who sexually assaulted him around the time of his 16th birthday, and the Church that kept his abuser sheltered for so many years.

In the avalanche of coverage the U.S. media has been according revelations of scandal and perfidy in Catholic dioceses across their country, there's a line about Canada that often crops up: American Catholics could have learned a thing or two from how their cousins to the north dealt with claims, more than a decade ago, of widespread sexual abuse at residential schools and orphanages. The stories talk about the tough guidelines the Canadian Catholic bishops unveiled in 1992 - calling for "responding fairly and openly" to all allegations, stressing the need to "respect" the jurisdiction of outside authorities, and recommending counselling and compassion for the victims. There's an inference that Canadian Catholics have put their troubles behind them.

But run those notions past advocates and lawyers representing the thousands of Canadians who say they too have been victimized by Catholic priests, and the response you get tends toward hollow laughter. From Pain to Hope, the Church's showcase handbook for dealing with abuse and abusers, has turned out to be mostly show, they say. "If there's a way in which the Canadian Church is better than the American Church, it's in getting away with the crime," says David Gagnon, national director of SNAP-Canada, the Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests. "The Church treats victims with contempt and malice." Gagnon, who lives in Ottawa, says victims look at the American Church's steps toward a national "zero tolerance" policy on sexual abusers and wonder why allegations, and even criminal convictions for sexual misconduct, seem to be taken so lightly in Canada. "They recycle these guys over and over again," Gagnon says of the Canadian Church's policy of "reintegrating" fallen priests back into active ministry after treatment. "It's like asking an alcoholic to work at a liquor store."

The depth of the abuse problem facing the Catholic Church in this country is hard to sound. In recent months, there has been a spate of new allegations made against priests in Canada, but unlike the United States, where public and media interest is on the boil, here few of the cases have received widespread attention. Among them:

» Joseph Lang, a Terrace, B.C., priest placed on "administrative leave" in April. Father Lang faces allegations of sexual activity with a minor dating back to his time as a parish priest in Cleveland, Ohio in the 1980s.

» Douglas Stamp, a Hamilton priest forced to step down from his job as a hospital chaplain this spring when a parishioner brought to light his 1997 conviction for indecently assaulting two 12-year-old boys in Peterborough, Ont.

» Hugh Vincent MacDonald, a retired Ontario priest, now faces multiple allegations of sexual abuse dating back to the early 1970s, when he was in the Cape Breton community of New Waterford. The accusations surfaced after David Martin, a Vancouver Island contractor, committed suicide in April, leaving behind a note detailing his experiences with MacDonald. The 80-year-old faced similar charges 15 years ago, but those were dismissed. A second priest from Cape Breton is also under investigation.

» Martin Houston, a Carman, Man., priest, resigned from his parish in June after media reports about his abusive past as a teacher at an Oblate-run residential school in the 1960s. Houston had served a decade in prison for sexual abuse and indecent assault involving young boys before he was ordained.

» Matthew Berko, a Ukrainian Catholic priest, stepped down from his parish in Florida after revelations that he had been convicted of sexually assaulting a 14-year-old female parishioner in Mississauga, Ont., in 1985.

» Paul Desilets, a retired Quebec priest, has been indicted on 27 counts of indecent assault and battery dating back to his time as a parish priest in Bellingham, Mass., between 1978 and 1984. State prosecutors seek his extradiction.

It's impossible to say just how many more Canadian priests are facing allegations of abuse, because the only people with reliable statistics on the problem - the bishops in charge of the country's 71 dioceses - aren't sharing that information with the public or even central Church authorities. "The difficulty is that every diocese is kind of a land unto itself," says Nancy Mayer, a Toronto social worker who counsels abuse victims. From Pain to Hope offers suggestions on how to deal with allegations of abuse, she says, which each Canadian bishop is free to follow or ignore. The fact that it takes most abuse victims years, sometimes decades, to build up the confidence and courage to report their childhood experiences to authorities compounds the problem. The Church tends to regard these "historical" claims with deep suspicion, says Mayer, and the chances of a successful criminal prosecution dim with each passing year.

When civil claims for apologies, counselling and compensation are met, it's often in exchange for silence. Church lawyers regularly demand sweeping "gag" clauses that impose financial penalties if victims disclose any information about their experiences or settlement. Mayer herself has personal experience with abuse by clergy, but is prevented from publicly discussing it by legal agreement.

Those who are able to talk about their compensation struggles with Catholic dioceses and their insurers say the experience was in many ways worse than the abuse. Elizabeth McKenna spent 20 days on the witness stand in a Toronto courtroom in the spring of 2000, before the diocese of Sault Ste. Marie and their insurers finally agreed to settle a $3-million lawsuit she had pursued for a decade. "They really put the gloves on," says McKenna. "I'll never forget one of the lawyer's questions: 'Do you have an orgasm when you masturbate?' " In the run-up to trial, she says, high school acquaintances were approached by private investigators seeking information about her past.

McKenna was a devoutly religious 17-year-old who wanted to become a nun when her parish priest, Father Francis Reed, initiated a sexual relationship with her. The encounters continued for years, even as a confused McKenna plunged into depression and self-destructive behaviour - today, at age 55, her arms are covered with white scars from countless cigarette burns and knife cuts. Ultimately McKenna, who had Reed criminally charged (although the case did not go to trial when the crown would not proceed with prosecution), received an undisclosed financial settlement, as well as a tepid written apology from Sault Bishop Jean-Louis Plouffe for the priest's "wrongful conduct." Father Reed continues to serve three parishes in northern Ontario.

Jack Lavers, a St. John's lawyer who has been involved in dozens of abuse claims in Newfoundland and Labrador, says foot-dragging and hardball legal tactics are the norm, not the exception, when you challenge the Catholic Church in Canada. "It takes five to seven years to deal with one of these cases," says Lavers. "They go through all the legal steps and put up all the defences they possibly can." The lawyer says he can recall only one instance when the Church offered to pay for a session of psychological counselling for a victim, as is recommended in From Pain to Hope, though he routinely makes such requests.

John Caruso's story seems to highlight the worst aspects of the challenges facing Catholics in Canada, and the way the Church responds to them. His family moved to Fort Erie, Ont., in 1982, just after he turned 13. Devout Catholics - Caruso's dad is Sicilian, his mother, French Canadian - they quickly befriended the parish priest, Father James Kneale, often inviting him home for dinner. Caruso had grown up around priests, but Kneale was different. He was young and cool, unapologetic about cursing in front of the kids, and he liked to hang out with members of the youth group. From the very beginning, Kneale took a great interest in Caruso's spiritual and academic development, to his parents' delight. "He was a really good friend to me," Caruso recalls with a rueful shake of his head. "He was always my biggest fan. He would boost my ego. My parents were pleased that I was getting guidance. For their son to become a priest would have been a great joy."

Caruso started to spend more and more time alone with Kneale, sometimes going to the rectory for video parties and staying overnight. The priest would occasionally provide him with alcohol, timing him as he chugged glasses of wine. Around the time of Caruso's 16th birthday in 1985, Kneale - who by that time had been transferred to a parish in Thorold, a half-hour away - asked Caruso to stop by his house so he could give him his present. He gave him a gift most teens would kill for - the keys to his car, telling him to treat the Volvo as his own vehicle. Kneale then drove Caruso and a friend to a high school party, stopping on the way to buy them a 26-ounce bottle of vodka.

The priest's suggestion that Caruso return to the rectory after the party, to sleep off the effects of the vodka away from his parents, seemed in keeping with his fun-guy persona. "I got really drunk," says Caruso. "When I got back to his house I went to the bathroom and vomited. That's the last thing I remember until I woke up in the middle of the night and he was performing fellatio on me."

Confused and consumed with guilt, Caruso waited a month before he finally told his dad, Joseph, about the assault. Wanting to avoid a scandal (Caruso says his mother and siblings were unaware of what happened and remained friendly with the priest until he was criminally charged more than a decade later), his father approached Thomas Fulton, the bishop of St. Catharines, asking him to quietly deal with the problem. Kneale apologized to Caruso and his father, but he wasn't sent for treatment until 1988. After seven months of therapy at a Toronto-area mental-health facility for priests, Kneale returned to active ministry, as a hospital chaplain in St. Catharines. By 1994, he was back to parish duties, at a church in Niagara Falls.

Caruso initially thought he could put the incident behind him and, in keeping with Christianity's teachings, forgive the man who had sinned against him. But the anger and turmoil were more than he could handle; they spewed out on the ice, at school, at home. Kneale kept in touch with Caruso, phoning him a few times a year, occasionally making arrangements to meet up for dinner. Somehow, the phone conversations always seemed to turn to sex, with the priest pressing Caruso for details of his adventures with girls at school.

It was after one such conversation in 1997 that Caruso says disturbing, hazy memories started to surface. He began to fear that Kneale might have taken advantage of him on other occasions when he was drunk. (Caruso now believes Kneale drugged him, perhaps slipping Rohypnol - better known as the "date rape" drug - into the drinks he used to ply him with.) He confided in his brother, Joe, a provincial police officer, who advised John to bring charges against the priest.

When Niagara Falls police raided Kneale's apartment in the rectory that June, they found diaries containing the names of boys the priest had mentored, accompanied by check marks or plus signs. Detectives seized adult videos, gay porn magazines and pictures of nude and semi-nude young men, including some of Caruso. Another man, who alleges he was assaulted in 1983, came forward, and the priest was charged with six sex-related offences.

Two years later, on the third day of his trial, Kneale pleaded guilty to one count of sexual assault against Caruso (the other charges were withdrawn in exchange for the plea) and was sentenced to nine months of house arrest and 18 months probation. The charges and the sentence seemed little enough to the victim. By that point it was already more than a decade since Caruso had begun his long series of suicide attempts. Some were cries for help, other times he lost his nerve, once, after swallowing 90 sleeping pills, he had to have his heart restarted in a hospital emergency room.

Last autumn Kneale was again returned to active ministry, this time in a Calgary parish. He was forced to resign in February after a parishioner who used to live in Ontario recognized him, and the story made its way into the local media. Fred Henry, the bishop of Calgary, publicly apologized for not consulting parishioners before hiring Kneale, but expressed sympathy for the plight of the priest. "I'm very saddened by the fact that someone such as Father Kneale has to wear a scarlet mark on his forehead for the rest of his life," Henry said at the time of the resignation. "I think he has been treated unjustly."

Throughout the whole experience, says Caruso, the diocese of St. Catharines never once offered counselling or any other service to help him get over his trauma. He and his family are now suing Kneale, two former bishops and the diocese for $8.6 million in damages. Caruso and his lawyers claim Church officials knew or should have known that Kneale was preying on young men before the 1985 assault and did nothing to stop the priest, an allegation the Church has denied in a statement of defence.

Kneale, who maintains that his sexual relationship with Caruso was consensual, refused a Maclean's request for an interview, as did his lawyer and a representative for the diocese of St. Catharines. The priest, who is now back in southern Ontario, has launched a counterclaim against Caruso's parents, insisting they are responsible for their son's troubles because they failed to adequately care and provide for Caruso. Kneale also alleges that Joseph Caruso "assaulted" his own son on numerous occasions. The diocese, in a separate countersuit, goes further, saying Caruso's mother and father "knew or should have known" about the assaults and mitigated the damage to their son by getting him counselling and treatment.

Monsignor Peter Schonenbach, general secretary of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, says the Canadian Church is proud of its record in dealing with the thorny issue of abuse by clergy, but admits that cases like Caruso's show that there is still some distance to be travelled. "We have grown into a situation where we realize that we have to be very categoric on this issue," says Schonenbach. "Zero tolerance seems to be what the public demands. Bishops now realize that they cannot simply say this person has paid their debt. The acceptance of people about this is simply not there."

Policy changes are in the works, he says, and will be debated this fall at a plenary meeting. Schonenbach says he believes a consensus is building among Canadian bishops for a more open approach to the problem. Information about alleged abusers will have to be shared, he says, and bishops will have to be prepared to give up some of their autonomy for a sexual abuse policy "that is law" rather than simply a guideline. Schonenbach says the Church has long been challenged by the darker impulses of the spirit and the problem of dealing with sin: "We're always working against human frailties."

In the dark corner of the restaurant, John Caruso slowly twists a drinking straw around his index finger as he talks about his recovery. He's in therapy and things are a little better these days, the anger more controlled, the despair mostly in check. (In the time between the interview and the story going to press, he will call back to say the latest girlfriend is gone - just as he predicted.) This day in the half-empty eatery, he almost breaks down a couple of times. "I know it's not my fault. I know I'm not responsible for any part of it," he says, more to himself than anyone else. The lawsuit isn't about the money, it's to "stop the bullshit, the lies." To make someone, somewhere, accountable for what happened to him, and who knows how many other kids in Canada. "The Church doesn't give a rat's ass about anything but the Almighty Dollar," he says, pulling the plastic noose around his finger one notch tighter.


Maclean's July 22, 2002