A thought on the issue





                                by Kenneth Bagnell

     Norman Cousins may not have been a devout Christian, but at times, he’d think that way. I fell upon a line of his that brings to mind a subject over which I shake my head day after day. He once said this “Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live…” I think that must happen in the lives of the thousands upon thousands of Catholic priests who must live with the horrible accusations of sexually abusing small children. How do they live with themselves?  Put simply, I just cannot imagine it.

       In Canada, just take the word of the respected native leader, Phil Fontaine, whom I once met briefly aboard a flight from Toronto.  He has been honored with doctoral degrees from nine Canadian universities, plus being made an officer of the Order of Canada and more.  He and many other Canadians who have gone through the agony of sexual abuse at residential schools, do all they can to reveal the horror it was for native children. In the year 1990, Fontaine was making it known that virtually every native school was a place for sexual abuse by teachers, administrators and, as we know, even priests and ministers. “In my grade three class,” he once said, “if there were 20 boys, every single one of them would have experienced what I experienced. They would have experienced some aspect of sexual abuse.” That is horrible and for decided reason.  Here’s why:    

     There is a highly disconcerting aspect to all of this.  It’s simply this: the endless numbers of priests who emerge as predators are not “gay people”, they are pedophiles, who obviously exploit the young sexually, and once they achieve their conquests they have in virtually every case seriously damaged or wrecked that child’s future just as Fontaine recalls. The broad public regards these priests as “gay.” They aren’t.  From time to time, as you may have noticed, I recall a psychiatrist friend –  once a family doctor in my hometown — who was candid with young people and who later said this: “If any of you guys once out in the world discover a youngster being exploited sexually by an adult you’d better act and do it immediately. I mean it. Because that boy may survive one incident. But any more and his life is wrecked.” I wonder, given what we know from the coverage of this issue, how many thousands will never be normal as he deserved to be.  

      Take but one example: Alaska. How many lives have been wrecked forever? And also how large a part of the Catholic Church’s good work has been destroyed forever, and how much funds given by the worshippers had to be passed on to the victims?  Here’s a quick summary: (a) $50 million from the church had to be given the Alaskan people to settle claims of priestly sexual abuse. (b) a dozen priests were found guilty of sexual acts upon Eskimo children from 1961 to 1987; (c) The average payout to individuals for sexual molesting was almost $600,000 per person.  Worse still, was the collective amount the Jesuits had to pay out: $166 million, all of course from the church’s collection plates. It goes on and on.  I’m far from delighted to write this, in fact, I feel true sorrow for the elderly ladies I used to pass in Toronto, wearing my clerical collar on the walk to conduct a funeral. Yet they still smiled and nodded and greeted me saying “Hello Father.”  

    Now these fine people are waiting yet again in sorrow to see what will take place concerning the highest  cleric ever charged with abuse:  Cardinal George Pell, a senior associate of the Pope — one of Vatican’s highest ranking — who is charged with  misconduct which, given his post, is an enormous wound in the Papacy. He denies it despite the absolute certainty the Australian investigators insist are valid. A senior journalist of the renowned Al Jazeera insists it’s as true as the existing evidence proves. The journalist named, Yaara Bou Melham, of Melbourne is as certain as the circumstances thus far, permit: As she puts it: “No cardinal in the modern era, in a free society, has ever had criminal offences levelled against him… And this is not just any Cardinal, this is the Vatican number 3, this is a career crisis at the climax of his career. He has been handpicked by Pope Francis to go to the Vatican to clean up and bring order and transparency to the Medieval structure of the Vatican finances…”  There are questions over whether Pope Francis can leave Pell’s important position open for so long if this case in Australia goes on for years….” She has put her finger on an aspect of the case that many others wonder about as well. Why the delay after delay?  

     I’m somewhat sorry to bring this up, but as a journalist who is also a minister I can’t avoid asking: “Why, why, why – does sexual abuse of children thrive  in the ranks of the celibate Catholic clergy yet some Catholics claim it’s no worse than the record of Protestant ministers.  Not so. The argument goes on and on as to why the priesthood has such a problem.  I feel deep regret for the church but the facts are clear. (And yes, gay people are gay people and not pedophilic.) All anyone needs, in order to sense the record in Canada is to turn up the template display entitled: “Catholic sexual abuse cases in Canada.” It begins with British Columbia, then turns to Newfoundland, Ontario, Nova Scotia, Quebec and so on. I’m sorry, believe me. But the statistics reveal that the facts are indeed the facts.

        Naturally, all faiths –- Catholic, Protestant, Judaic — should feel not cynical distain and quiet contempt but sorrow for the good Catholics worldwide.  It’s a dreadful situation, especially because it injures young boys for life, as well as giving global Catholicism an awful public image. Remember tens of thousands of boys will carry serious emotional wounds for a lifetime.  Benjamin Franklin’s comment came back to me as I pondered the whole ugly mess: “It takes many good deeds to buy a good reputation, but only a few bad ones to lose it.” One final comment: I share perhaps with you, sincere sorrow for Pope Francis as he awaits the decision in Australia, a decision that just maybe well beyond the word “dreadful”.



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  1. Jim Hickman
    Sep 20, 2017

    Many years ago, when I was in high school, a joke went around: What does a priest say when he’s thrown overboard? Throw me a buoy.
    Although I thought this was just a laugh at the time, I believe now there must have been a reason behind the jest, that stories had come to light (but rarely in the media in those days) about sexual abuse by Catholic priests.Do I have any sympathy for George Pell or the hundreds of others who’ve been found guilty? No. As a father, I can’t even comprehend having a child damaged by someone who was given ultimate trust, someone whom you looked up to, who was supposed to be the pillar of the community.
    My view is that certain professions and volunteer organizations — hockey coaches, phys-ed teachers, Boy Scouts, Big Brothers — by their nature attract predators. We’re talking a small minority here in the ranks who commit child sexual abuse, but I believe that there are more of these people attracted to these careers than in other disciplines in society. And I certainly don’t think that Catholicism or celibacy has anything to do with it. It’s being drawn to work in a place where there’s access to children when you are in a position of authority.

  2. L Norris
    Sep 20, 2017

    So sad and so terrible. Thanks for your thought provoking insights.

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