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Part 10: Growing pressure to name Catholic priests accused of sexual assault

Last Updated Oct 21, 2020 at 12:34 pm EDT

CAUTION: This story contains graphic content related to allegations of sexual assault and might be upsetting to some readers.

If you or someone you know are victims of sexual violence, you can contact Crisis Services Canada, a 24/7 hotline, at 1-833-456-4566 or you can find local support through the Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres; The Government of Canada has also compiled a list of sexual misconduct support centres. If you are under 18 and need help, contact the Kid’s Help Phone online or at 1-800-668-6868. 

They lived in silence for decades, but now those who say they were sexually assaulted as children by Catholic priests are pushing for a new transparency that could create a seismic shift inside the Church in Canada.

“It’s time to clear out the records and release the names of these priests,” says Brenda Brunelle, a Canadian leader of the Survivors Network of Accused Priests. “So people […] can be assured their children are safe.”

Brunelle is calling on Canadian leaders to follow their American counterparts and release comprehensive lists of priests who have been convicted of, admitted to, or are credibly accused of sexually assaulting minors.

In particular, she is calling on the Basilian Fathers, an order of priests with headquarters in Toronto, to lead the way. She has been working with lawyer Rob Talach, who has filed hundreds of cases against the Catholic Church, including Basilians.

“It’s a litmus test that whether these institutions, in this case the Basilians, get it and are on board with moving forward,” he says. “They have to expose their sins and put a list out there.”

He believes, out of all the religious organizations in Canada, the Basilian Fathers have a unique responsibility to release a list. Its priests are teachers, and they operate or staff schools and universities across North and South America.

“It’s even more important because their priests had guaranteed large-scale exposure to young people,” he says.

More than 100 years ago, the Basilians opened their first school, what is now St. Michael’s College School in Toronto, which they still run. CityNews’ investigation has uncovered child sexual assault allegations, convictions or settlements relating to at least 14 Basilians, including two who appear on a list of credibly accused released by the Diocese of Galveston-Houston, in Texas.

Talach has been working with Brunelle to put together their own list, focusing on the London, Ontario diocese, where multiple infamous sexual abuse cases took place.

Published in December, it names 36 priests, including the man Brunelle says sexually assaulted her as a child, Basilian Father Michael Fallona. The Basilians settled with Brunelle but did not admit liability. Fr. Fallona denies the allegations.

London Bishop Ronald Fabbro, who is also a Basilian, called the unofficial list “substantially correct” and admitted that it was missing four names, but wouldn’t release them.

“I don’t know why they continue to be protected, covered up,” says Brunelle.

CityNews’s requests for an on-camera interview with the head of the Basilians were declined. Eventually, we sent a list of questions for an official response, including whether the order is open to releasing a list.

In their statement, the Basilians don’t directly answer the question. They say it’s “a very complex topic” and many things should be taken into consideration, including how it’s determined which priests are named when there’s no conviction or admission of guilt.

The order says victims who don’t want a public reminder of their abuse should also be considered, especially as naming priests could lead to speculation about their victims’ identities.

“We know that some experts, on behalf of victims, feel strongly about and support the right to privacy of those victims,” the Basilians state, “so as to avoid the perceived stigma, humiliation, shame and guilt associated with the abuse.”

Every survivor CityNews spoke with is in favour of the Basilians and other Catholic orders releasing a list.

“Then at least you have the knowledge, and without the knowledge you’re just sending people in with blind faith and you’re putting the children at risk,” says Peter Luci, whose sexual assault claim led to a legal settlement with the Basilians.

You take anything about institutional change all the literature says you have to take a bold initial step. You have to take something that’s going to have an echo effect. That’s really going to resonate with society. The list, though, is also the kryptonite, because it shows the size and depth of the problem.

Calls for lists of abusers have received mixed reviews from Church leaders. In the U.S., 149 diocese and 23 religious orders have published lists of names. The Basilians say the lists serve a purpose in the United States that doesn’t exist in Canada.

“Various states have removed the barricade of limitations for victims to be able to pursue claims against historical predators. Publication is necessary to ensure victims are aware of their new rights to pursue compensation,” the Basilians state, adding Canada doesn’t have such limitations.

As of today, no official list of credibly accused priests has been released by any Catholic organization in Canada. The Jesuits say they’ll be the first, planning to release a list in January 2021. Going back to 1950, the Jesuits’ list will be compiled by a third-party company. However, the Jesuits will have final say on what’s made public.

In November 2019, Vancouver’s diocese released the names of nine priests who have already been publicly convicted of sexually abusing children. Though the diocese has admitted there have been at least 26 allegations against local priests dating back to the 1950s.

The Vancouver diocese wants bishops to create a national registry that every Church organization in Canada could check and add to, but there’s no guarantee the internal list would ever be made public.

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops says establishing a credibly accused list is “an important question” that can’t be answered with a simple yes or no. Rather, individual bishops must weigh transparency against their local privacy rules and the fears of victims who worry they could be identified.

“You take anything about institutional change all the literature says you have to take a bold initial step. You have to take something that’s going to have an echo effect. That’s really going to resonate with society,” says lawyer Rob Talach, “The list, though, is also the kryptonite, because it shows the size and depth of the problem.”

In the U.S., credibly accused lists include nearly 200 clergy members with teaching, mental health or social work licenses, an investigation by the Associated Press has found. Since then, some credentials have been revoked.

There are flaws in the lists, which name 5,300 clergy, the AP report revealed. No national database exists, making it difficult for state officials or employers to do a comprehensive search. Standards also vary widely on who is named on these lists.

Sister Nuala Kenny, a Catholic nun and pediatrician, has been at the forefront of the Canadian Church’s examination of sexual assault scandals for four decades. She says those calling for lists should have the right motives – to protect children, not to vilify the Church.

“That becomes vengeance, not just righteous indignation that has to move to meaningful atonement,” she says. “There’s always a balance in those things.”

At a landmark sex abuse summit in Rome last year, Pope Francis addressed the issue of releasing lists with caution. He advised Church leaders that diocese and Catholic organizations shouldn’t publish a list of accused until a preliminary investigation is done and the guilt of the accused is proven. However, he didn’t say whether the investigation referenced should be civil or conducted by the Church.

“The Church will only break the cycle of secrecy and denial if it itself becomes more transparent,” says Sr. Kenny. “I think victims and survivors want change. They want an acknowledgement that they were harmed. They want not just an apology but meaningful atonement, meaningful acts.”

Brunelle’s quest to have a list of Basilians released has so far been greeted with silence from the order.

“That doesn’t mean that I’m going away,” she says, “and that doesn’t mean that I’m not compiling a list.”

With files from the Associated Press


UPDATE: On Oct. 18, day six of CityNews’s investigative series, a spokesperson for the Basilian Fathers sent a second statement on behalf of Superior General Fr. Kevin Storey. It reads in part: “Our responsibility to monitor and protect our community is one that we shoulder with the utmost importance. Victims of clerical abuse have been failed in this respect. As a Congregation, we have taken meaningful steps to help prevent such horrific actions from taking place in the future. […] We feel deep sorrow for those who have had their inherent dignity offended and we encourage all victims to let us know how we can help them move forward through a personal apology, counseling and/or financial reparation. We promise to do better, and we are truly sorry.” The full statement is posted below:

Over these last several months, the Basilian Fathers have been reminded of heartbreaking accounts of sexual abuse faced by minors. As a Congregation that has built communities based on goodness, discipline and knowledge, we unreservedly apologize for the trauma and destruction that this has caused.

Our responsibility to monitor and protect our community is one that we shoulder with the utmost importance. Victims of clerical abuse have been failed in this respect. As a Congregation, we have taken meaningful steps to help prevent such horrific actions from taking place in the future.

For instance, since 1992 all candidates for the Basilian Fathers must pass psychological screening by independent assessors and have annual reviews and growth plans. Since 2006, the Basilian Fathers have been audited by an independent third-party organization, Praesidium, to ensure that we provide safe environments. As part of our accreditation, every Basilian must engage in ongoing education regarding healthy boundaries as well as recognizing signs when colleagues are not following proper protocols.

We cooperate fully in all legal investigations when allegations of impropriety are brought forward. An individual who faces an allegation cannot function as a priest while an investigation is taking place. In addition to these steps, a review board of lay professionals is called upon after inappropriate behaviour is identified to determine future steps in relation to the individual involved.

We acknowledge that allegations of this nature hurt the position of trust that we seek to maintain with our community and hope that our students, parishioners, colleagues, family, and friends give us the opportunity to reconcile and regain their trust.

We feel deep sorrow for those who have had their inherent dignity offended and we encourage all victims to let us know how we can help them move forward through a personal apology, counseling and/or financial reparation. We promise to do better, and we are truly sorry.

Fr. Kevin Storey, CSB
Superior General of the Basilian Fathers