Analysis: Canadian bishops release lengthy new document on sex abuse

This new text was drafted over the last four years contains historical information, canonical norms, and resources, but often lacks specific guidance on how best to move forward.

Bishop Lionel Gendron, president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, center, is seen at the annual plenary meeting Sept. 24 in Cornwall, Ontario. The Quebec bishop spoke to more than 80 bishops about the sexual abuse crisis. (CNS photo/Canadian Catholic News)

For nearly 30 of my 46 years on this planet, I have been regularly inundated with stories about sex abuse in the Catholic Church in Canada. I wasn’t even Catholic yet when the first major news erupted in February 1989 about Mount Cashel Orphanage in St. John’s, Newfoundland, a place filled with the same sadomasochistic horrors and demonic abuse (and cover-up) that we have heard about this year in the Pennsylvania report and similar stories from other parts of the world. I wrote my first paper on the crisis as an undergraduate in the early 1990s for a class on child psychology. The paper consisted of an analysis of the 1992 document From Pain to Hope, which the Canadian episcopal conference issued in its first major attempt to come to terms with the stories of abuse that had been emerging over the previous decade.

The Canadian bishops have just issued another, newer, and longer document entitled “Protecting Minors from Sexual Abuse: A Call to the Catholic Faithful in Canada for Healing, Reconciliation and Transformation”. It is instructive to see what they apparently have—and have not—learned in more than twenty-five years.

This new text, states the introduction, was drafted over the last four years. It is a lengthy and wide-ranging document divided into three parts. The first presents a history of Catholic responses to abuse and stories from survivors; this runs to seventy-six (of 181) pages. Perhaps the best feature of this section is that every sub-section ends with highlighted text boxes listing points of action expected or encouraged from bishops and major superiors.

The second section is highly technical, and offers canonical norms, sometimes in complex legalese (both canonical and civil). These norms, we are told, have been reviewed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and approved for publication.

The third section offers an annotated list of recommended resources in both official languages (French and English) and from several countries, including secular governmental publications, publications of clinicians, and Catholic resources. Several appendices then follow, including numerous check-lists for what to ask for and how to listen to victims, how to deal with offenders, and how the wider Church can deal with the shame. A glossary, footnotes, and index bring the report to a conclusion.

Overall the tone is modest and restrained. Though rightly noting that progress has been made in the last quarter-century (e.g., mandatory reporting in all jurisdictions, and the removal of any statute of limitations on indictable offenses), it avoids any crowing about achievements because it recognizes that a lot of damage still remains, and new allegations continue to emerge. Indeed, the pain and damage of abuses previously acknowledged can by no means be considered a thing of the past. As a result, it recognizes that “the need for healing and reconciliation, for repentance and conversion, and for deep ecclesial renewal remain a challenge” (16).

Two other major challenges are flagged early on. The first involves what is describes as transparency “and the willingness to be accountable” (18). Later on it puts this as a call to “revitalize the Church by engaging new, more collaborative forms of ministry” (39). But nowhere do we find the necessary specifics. Who collaborates with whom doing what? What mechanisms are in place to ensure this accountability happens regularly?

The documents then states that perhaps the biggest lesson learned since 1992 also remains an ongoing challenge: that of meeting with victims and hearing from them. But then the authorial mask slips a bit and two very revealing claims emerge: “while it may be difficult and even humiliating for a bishop to find the courage to meet survivors, Pope Benedict XVI has shown that it is not impossible” (23; my emphasis). Humiliating—for bishops? Who need courage? This is offensive whining. What of the real humiliations endured by victims, whose real courage in coming forward was often rebuffed by a callous and uncaring hierarchy? Still, we can freely admit that the bit about courage among bishops not being impossible is surely a very telling admission of their manifest weakness in this regard. (What’s that old saw about how, at an ordination, prior to putting the mitre on a man’s head, his backbone is first removed?)

Elsewhere, however, the bishops do manage to strike a better balance. While several times noting that “zero tolerance” is an understandable public expectation, which the bishops themselves share, it also says the Church cannot remain the body of Christ if it is not merciful like Christ to all, including offenders. It immediately adds, however, that mercy can be offered only after admission of guilt, reparation of harms done, and other demands of justice are met. And the document later rightly insists “church leaders be cautious when using the language of forgiveness” because it may “downplay” or “delegitimize” the pain of the victims, or make them feel pressured to offer forgiveness before they are ready (55).

The document also recognizes the suffering of those in the Church who are innocent. It admits the widespread sense of shame on the part of many Catholics, noting with striking candor that some who remain “profoundly attached” to Christ nonetheless “no longer feel comfortable identifying themselves as Catholic or proclaiming their faith in public” (38). This, of course, confirms something many of us have known for a long time: abuse and its cover-up function as anti-evangelistic tools more powerfully than just about anything else. Whenever, for thirty years now, we have seen the word “Catholic” in the headlines, we have become accustomed to hearing not evangelion—good news—but nightmares.

It’s important to note that there is a kind of negative ecumenical effect as well. I recall how, in 1992, when—while still an Anglican—I was discussing my paper on the earlier document From Pain to Hope with my child psychology professor. Her scorn was such that she didn’t make ecumenical distinctions between churches or denominations, but clearly regarded the sins of Catholics as damning all Christians. I tried several times, and without much success, to explain that Anglicans had a lot in common with Catholics—but were not part of the Catholic Church. In hindsight it was a wasted effort, for the Anglican Church of Canada has since 1993 been embroiled in its own crisis, largely centered on abuses committed by its clergy at residential schools for aboriginal Canadians.

After more than a quarter-century of struggling to learn, what must yet be done? All throughout, the report is right on sentiment, but short on specifics. For example, it calls on “all members of the Catholic Church in this country…to engage in a process of regaining credibility” (48). Later on it says that the Church can “regain its credibility by examining its own self-understanding” (62). And later still it says that restored credibility requires “transparency…, a challenge which must be taken up as generously as possible in order for broken trust to be restored” (71). In none of these places, or elsewhere, does it give any serious and specific guidance on how any of this is to be done.

The missing piece, I submit, and have argued at length in my forthcoming book Crucifying the Church: the Costs of Reform Today, comes in looking at practical structural reforms to the organs of ecclesial governance—parish councils and diocesan synods in particular. Until and unless these are reformed so that lay people will play not merely a consultative role but have decision-making powers in a manner commensurate with clergy, the bishops who write documents such as this will find, in another twenty-five years’ time, that there may—please God—be far fewer stories of abuse only because there are far fewer Catholics in the Church.

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About Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille 108 Articles
Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille is associate professor at the University of Saint Francis in Ft. Wayne, IN., where he also maintains a part-time private practice in psychotherapy. He is the author and editor of several books, including Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy (University of Notre Dame, 2011).


  1. I would agree with you, Professor DeVille, that there has been a failure of most Roman Catholics, whether cleric or lay, to understand the causes of the current sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church.

    The gorilla in the room, which few seem willing to admit, is the disproportionate rate at which RC clergy have abused post-pubescent male children, which appears to be about ONE HUNDRED PERCENT of the general U.S. adult male population. The Jay Report indicates that five percent of RC clergy have abused children, and 80 percent of those have been post-pubescent male children.

    By way of contrast, the 2013 U.S. registry of child sex offenders indicated that there were 80,000 of that number, of which 80 percent were male-on-female offenders, while only 20% were male-on-male offenders. If the adult male population of 100 million is compared with the 16,000 or so male-on-male sex offenders, it would appear that the number of the latter group is a small fraction of a percent of the former group.

    I believe that the disparity between the statistics for the population of RC clergy and that of the general U.S. male population can best be explained by validating and confirming the findings of the late A.W.S. Sipe: that fully half of U.S. and European RC clergy are actively gay, and in gross violation of their supposed vows of celibacy.

    If this is the case, then it would explain why RC clergy are unwilling to address the causes of the sexual abuse crisis currently going on: they would have to address the infidelity and essential disobedience of so many of their clergy.

    • The problem is Bishops denying and deflecting from this issue. They are clearly lying.

      This is also a recipe for chaos. The refusal to give us names, is going to result in people picking on ALL priests.

    • You are right. Why condemn an action or behaviour you feel is completely normal and which you practice behind closed doors? I do not know if the issue can be rectified with this engrained in priestly life and more devastatingly hierarchial.

    • A very weak response; something to be expected when bishops investigate bishops. It is weak also because if does not take into account the finding of the Pennsylvania grand jury findings that most of the sexual abuse is homosexsual and that the only way to eradicate the problem is by purging the Catholic priesthood of homosexual. Here attached is some very serious and authentic journalistic investigation into how fat bishops in America and by inference bishops in Canada have sat by writing policies and covered up sexual abuses in much the same way. This report below shows the scandalous career-minded bishops who did exactly that:

  2. Homosexuals don’t just come from no where. I don’t doubt that there is some genetic influences, but I’m thinking “nurture.” I’m actually less interested in how McCarrick rose to the position of power that he did, and more about his childhood. I understand his father died at a very early age, and a young McCarrick was eventually sent to boarding school. I understand that a lot of our priests (I’m thinking the ones in their 70’s and 80’s and even are now deceased, the ones listed in the abuse reports, etc) where from poor families that sought an education for their young sons and sent them to boarding school/minor seminary Is this true? Were these men at one point separated prematurely from their fathers (and mothers)? Were they themselves abused, either sexually, emotionally, or physically?
    Aside from just a celibate priesthood being a logical place to “hide,” (and the gatekeepers in the vocational offices being gay-friendly) is there something in the past family structures/cultural structures/educational environment that was conducive to homosexual disorders and gender confusion?
    Are there tendencies? Are there patterns?

  3. Mt Cashel, St John’s, and–don’t leave out–Cornwall, Ont. ironically, the venue for the aforementioned Canadian episcopal conference. This diocese was the locus for a notorious sexual scandal in the late 1990s that had connections with other community services– most notably the local police and school district.

  4. As was said previously, this document means nothing. I have found priests I can trust in the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter. I will wait for the crumbling to complete before I return to the wider church.

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