Sexual abuse in the Church

May 18, 2011

Dear visitors,

Articles in the media have reported on my presentation at  a conference on sexual abuse in the Church, held  in Ottawa this past March. I have included the text of two such articles below. The first, authored by Fr. Raymond J. de Souza, appeared in Canada’s largest Catholic weekly newspaper, The Catholic Register. The second article appeared on Lifesite News, one of the foremost Catholic news agencies in the world, and includes my commentary on the child pornography hearings of the case against Canadian bishop Raymond Lahey. The bishop has since pleaded guilty in civil court and will in all likelihood will be sentenced to a jail term. He is no longer active in any ecclesial function. Another Canadian bishop, a very faithful, apostolic pastor informed me that the convicted man’s case will also be taken to Rome for the highest possible ecclesial trial.

Some years ago, I wrote an article, first published in Catholic World Report, that described my own experiences as a child in a residential school. It is posted here on my studio website:

Victims, Scandal, Truth, Compassion

At the time I did not wish to add scandal to scandal, and did not mention the fact that the criminal abuser, a layman who had damaged the lives of so many boys, and was convicted under law as a “dangerous sexual offender,” was released after nine years in prison and then went on to apply to enter a Canadian seminary. He was accepted by the then-archbishop with full knowledge of the man’s past, a fact which came out during a later civil trial, after the man had been ordained a priest. Now the full story is a matter of public record. While it is true that an individual committed these gravest of sins, it is also true that he  found a welcoming, sympathetic environment that allowed him to go on to become the “pastor” of souls. Such is the madness that has infected many dioceses and the national bishops’ conference of the particular church in my country, and in other countries as well. Justified with endlessly nuanced theology and disordered anthropology, there is a pattern of “national” ecclesial disobedience to the universal Church under Peter, compromise with sin and error, and a massive failure of Christian prudence that have blighted the Bride of Christ for several decades now. However, let us not forget that, as G. K. Chesterton once wrote, “The Church is always leaping out of the tomb, just when the world pronounces her dead.”

Michael D. O’Brien

Article 1:

Openness to Grace Makes Reconciliation Possible
by Fr. Raymond J de Souza
The Catholic Register, Toronto, 30 March, 2011

Michael O’Brien, the leading Catholic novelist in the English language, has sent millions of words into print. He has painted numerous sacred images which tell their own stories, pictures being worth thousands of words. Yet the words he spoke on March 28 at Saint Paul University in Ottawa had an uncommon power, for they were a personal testimonial of grace.

“I am proud to say that I am a Roman Catholic. It is beautiful, beautiful, beautiful that we have a Saviour who dwells with us in this magnificent Church. This is our home. The Church is full of Judases, but it is overwhelmingly full of saints.”

Regarding the Judases, O’Brien knows of what he speaks. The artist was speaking as part of a panel organized by the Cardus Centre for Cultural Renewal, Canada’s leading Christian think tank, and Conversations Cultural Centre, a project of the Catholic movement Communion and Liberation. The panel addressed the Indian residential school system under the title, “From Darkness of Heart to a Heart of Forgiveness.” The evening was sombre, with the weight of sin clearly felt, and also hopeful, with the liberation wrought by mercy also evident.

As part of the federal government apology to native Canadians for the residential schools experience, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been set up and has begun its work, taking testimony from former students across Canada. As difficult as it is to tell the truth about painful things, reconciliation is yet another step, more difficult still. Reconciliation requires the truth to be told, but telling the truth is not sufficient for reconciliation.

The panel at Saint Paul opened a window on what reconciliation looks like in the experience of three victims — O’Brien, and two native Canadian leaders, David Frank and Garnet Angeconeb.

“If you have love in your heart, you have no enemies,” said Frank, who was sexually abused by a priest in a residential school. That was the lesson his parents taught him, but the trauma he suffered as a boy drove love from his heart. Destroyed by the experience, he gave himself over to alcohol and drug addictions.

“I lived a life of a ‘dead God,’ ” he said. “God wasn’t there when I needed Him.”

His faith destroyed, his life a torment, his family disintegrating, Frank attempted suicide three times. On the third attempt, his suicide note written and a plan in place, he was interrupted by an unexpected knock at the door. It was a priest, coming to visit him. The priest came in and listened to Frank tell his story. It was an experience of love at a critical point.

“That priest rescued me,” said Frank. One priest was able to help heal the wounds inflicted by another priest.

Angeconeb was also sexually abused as a residential school student. He later met his abuser, but was met with total denial. Later he wanted to meet his abuser again, desiring him to admit the truth as the first step to reconciliation. But the abuser had already died.

“How do you forgive a man who has died?” Angeconeb asked. Later he was able to do so in his heart, if not face to face.

The three testimonies demonstrated that forgiveness and reconciliation is not easy, nor is it quick. If there is a lack of contrition, or if time and death makes that impossible, reconciliation remains imperfect. Most victims do not experience reconciliation at all.

O’Brien’s testimony revealed that the betrayal went beyond the lay dormitory supervisor, Martin Houston, at Grollier Hall, a residential school in Inuvik where O’Brien was a non-native student. While not sexually abused, O’Brien endured along with those who were in a reign of terror, marked by arbitrary cruelty and psychological and physical violence. Houston was convicted in the early 1960s of multiple counts of sexual abuse of teenage boys, and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Released after nine years, he sought admission to a seminary, and after a few rejections, was accepted by the archdiocese of St. Boniface in Manitoba and ordained a priest by the late Archbishop Antoine Hacault.

Archbishop Hacault is now dead and so cannot explain his horrifying decision. But perhaps O’Brien’s dramatic phrase is sufficient. Bishops are successors of the apostles and in their midst Judas still betrays the Lord Jesus.

The truth needs to be told. The three courageous witnesses have the courage to tell it. Beyond courage they possess the largeness of heart and the openness to grace which makes reconciliation possible. Let the government’s commission do its work. And let the Church follow these men on the path of mercy.

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Article 2:

Bishop Lahey child porn hearings an opportunity for renewal and purification: Michael O’Brien

by Rebecca Millette

OTTAWA, Ontario, May 2, 2011 ( – With hearings beginning this month into the child pornography charges against Bishop Raymond J. Lahey, former Bishop of Antigonish, a prominent Canadian Catholic author and victim of abuse says the abuse crisis is an opportunity for renewal and purification within the Catholic Church.

“I hope that Catholics will keep in mind in the heart of their souls that the Church is the Bride of Christ,” said bestselling author and artist Michael O’Brien. “The Lord is purifying his household, he is purifying the Bride in preparation for meeting the Bridegroom. It is painful; it is humiliating; it is necessary.”

Following the seizure of his laptop and other electronics at the Ottawa airport in September 2009, Bishop Lahey was charged with possession and distribution of child pornography, after which he resigned his position.

Bishop Lahey’s resignation came only a month after he had reached an $18 million settlement with sexual abuse victims in the deeply affected diocese of Antigonish. Hearings in the case of Bishop Lahey will begin May 4.

“I am proud to say that I am a Roman Catholic,” said O’Brien, who recently testified to his own psychological abuse at a residential school in Inuvik, by a supervisor later accepted into the Catholic priesthood. “It is beautiful, beautiful, beautiful that we have a Saviour who dwells with us in this magnificent Church. This is our home. The Church is full of Judases, but it is overwhelmingly full of saints.”

Although he escaped sexual abuse, O’Brien has testified to the years of betrayal and cruelty, including psychological and physical violence, he and other students endured at the residential school under the supervision of Martin Houston. The supervisor was convicted of multiple accounts of sexual abuse, but released early from prison and later ordained as a Catholic priest for the Archdiocese of St. Boniface in Manitoba.

“None of us likes a scandal, none of us likes to see our Mother shamed in public, shamed by her own children; however, the violation of one child, a violation of one human soul, is not worth a public image,” O’Brien said.

“The Church is going to the Cross; all of scripture and tradition have told us that this must come. The glory and hope of the Church is to be found in her union with Jesus. Only in union with Jesus on the Cross will the Body of Christ come through to eternal life.”

O’Brien said the sexual abuse scandals result when men with “deep-seated homosexual attraction” are accepted into the seminary and priesthood in “ecclesial disobedience” to directives from the Vatican.

“This has been largely ignored by the particular Church in Canada for at least two generations and now we are reaping the harvest of this disobedience,” he said. “Horrendous spiritual and moral blindness has been justified by calling it enculturation.”

The “apostatizing, once-Christian culture” of the West is not “authentic enculturation,” but in fact “betrayal of the Gospel,” continued O’Brien, citing legitimate enculturation as the communication of the Gospel to races, cultures and tribes for their own understanding.

“Wherever sin and error are permitted within the flock of Christ, that portion of the flock will die unless there is repentance,” he said. “Our failure as lay people in the West has been to compromise with the spirit of the world,” he said. “We have turned away from the Gospel; we have ceased listening.”

“Do we lay people pray for our shepherds? Do we offer sacrifice? Do we fast? Have we loved the truth?” he asked. “Or have we betrayed the truth by gathering about ourselves pleasing theologians and teachers who help us make peace with sin and error.”

O’Brien expressed his hope that victims of clerical abuse will learn to seek Jesus’ love for healing and the grace to forgive their perpetrators.

“Forgiveness is not sweet feelings about one who has abused us,” he said. “Authentic forgiveness is about praying for the redemption of those who have harmed us.”

“If we would receive mercy, we must be willing to give mercy unconditionally,” he said. “That is forgiveness.”

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Postscript:  The bishop pleaded guilty to the charges of importing and distributing child pornography. Sentencing has not yet been given by the court.

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In June of this year, 2011, I attended the national Truth and Reconciliation event in Inuvik, Northwest Territories, where I was one of the speakers at the first “Circle of Reconciliation.” You can view the talk online at the link below. It is at the 5th video down under the headings ‘Private Statement Gathering’ and ‘Circle of Reconciliation’. Once started, you can watch all the talks in the single video (about 4.5 hours) or move the slider to hour/minute/second 4:11:30 where my part begins. It’s about 25 minutes long.