If a child told you they’d been sexually assaulted by an adult what would you do? Would you call police? Would you report the allegations to a children’s aid society? Or would you do neither?
For most of us, the moral choice is clear. So why has the obligation to report often been ignored by many who claim to be doing God’s work?
Sister Nuala Kenny is a pediatrician who has spent decades examining the sexual assault scandal rocking the religious institution she’s given her life to. As a nun, she calls the Catholic Church’s response to the abuse of children “a contradiction to what we’ve been called to be as Christians.”
A CityNews investigation has uncovered several child sexual assault claims against an order of Catholic priests based in Toronto. Dating back decades, the Basilian Fathers were made aware of abuse allegations against their own priests, but historically, cases were never reported to police or a children’s aid society. Instead, allegations were dealt with internally, resulting in alleged predator priests continuing to work in schools and churches.
“If the Church had reacted more effectively and properly, we would not have the catastrophe that we have today.”
It’s a scenario lawyer Rob Talach has seen again and again.
“This is the repetitive story in the Catholic cases, these priests are often reported and moved. I term it ‘the silent shuffle,’” he says. “If the Church had reacted more effectively and properly, we would not have the catastrophe that we have today.”
It’s the summer of 1978, and as they have for years, hundreds of underprivileged children from the city flood Columbus Boys Camp in Orillia, north of Toronto. The rural refuge is operated by the Basilian Fathers. The order of Catholic priests, also known as the Congregation of St. Basil, founded, runs or staffs schools and other educational institutions across the continent. Their motto is a passage from the Bible’s Book of Psalms: “Teach me goodness, discipline and knowledge.”
Bill Taylor was a 17-year-old camp counselor that summer and has fond memories of his time with the kids. “We took them canoeing, there was archery, camp crafts, it was a lot of fun.”
However, Taylor also says the sunny escape turned into a cabin of horrors for a group of young children.
“One day, three or four of these young boys, maybe six, seven or eight [years old], came to tell us that Father Leo was coming into their cabin at night and putting his hand in their sleeping bags and fondling them,” Taylor tells CityNews.
Taylor says he reported the allegations to Father John Malo, a Basilian Priest he looked up to. He says Fr. Malo appeared angry and the next day Father Leo Campbell was gone from the camp. No one ever spoke to him about the alleged incident, Taylor says, and he doesn’t believe any authorities were contacted.
Two years later, Fr. Campbell, now a teacher at a Basilan-run school in Sault St. Marie, would allegedly sexually assault and rape student Peter Luci for two years.
Taylor believes “it’s a reasonable conclusion” that if police were called following the allegations at Columbus Boys camp – other young boys would have been spared.
Sr. Kenny calls priests who didn’t investigate or report claims of abuse “enablers of what happened.”
CityNews reached out to the Basilians multiple times, asking for an interview with one of their most senior priests, Vicar General David Katulski. Our requests were denied by their lawyer. Eventually, we sent questions about Taylor’s account to the Basilians for an official response. The order again declined to answer, stating, “we do not feel it is appropriate to answer your questions about specific individuals or events.” Their lawyer sent a statement addressing some of our questions about policy and the history of the Church’s understanding of sex abuse.
A loophole in the duty to report
Every province and territory in Canada has child protection legislation that requires people who perform professional or official duties alongside children to report reasonable suspicions of abuse, or face legal penalties.
In Ontario, everyone from a teacher to a priest to a member of the public has a duty to immediately report to a children’s aid society if a child tells them they’re being assaulted. It includes physical, sexual and emotional abuse, neglect, and risk of harm. The duty to report applies to any child who is under 16 years old. A report may be made regarding 16- and 17- year-olds but is not mandatory.
“We know at least in the cases of childhood sex abuse you’re not going to learn about it until decades later.”
Ontario’s Child Youth and Family Services Act came into effect in 2018, updating longstanding provincial child welfare laws. According to Talach, who has worked on more than 400 sexual abuse cases against the Catholic Church, the current laws still do a disservice to victims and society.
“The duty to report child abuse is right now focused on when you learn about it when the kid’s a kid. We know at least in the cases of childhood sex abuse you’re not going to learn about it until decades later.”
When an adult comes forward to report their own historical case of childhood sexual assault, there isn’t the same duty for an organization to report the allegation to children’s aid or police.
CityNews reached out to the Ontario government and asked if they’d consider strengthening the law. They didn’t directly answer our question but noted even historical allegations can result in a “legal duty to report” if it’s believed a child is currently being abused.
CityNews has interviewed five people who say it took them between 20 to 55 years to tell anyone about the sexual assaults they say they endured at the hands of Basilian Priests. In many cases, the survivors blame themselves for what happened, they believe they’re the only victim, or they simply push the dark memories into a hidden corner of their mind.
“It was very compartmentalized,” says Patrick McMahon, who was sexually abused by Hod Marshall, who was a Basilian priest at the time. “I put it away and for 20 years it was not part of my thought process and life was very difficult for me.”
The consequence of the decades of trauma-induced delay in speaking up keeps Talach up at night.
“Look, let’s just use common sense?” he says. “If there’s someone who’s thirty-five tells you that they’re abused when they were ten and that perpetrators are still working with 10-year-olds, do the math.”
In their original written statement, the Basilians told CityNews the order complies with duty to report laws. They say they would automatically take a current report of abuse of a child (who they take to be anyone up to age 18) to the local children’s aid society, as legislation mandates, “and in conjunction with that office, have it reported to police.”
In a second statement, sent to CityNews on day six of its investigative series, on behalf of Superior General Fr. Kevin Storey 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.” The full statement is posted below.
Basilians under fire for handling of St. Mike’s sex assault
However, leadership at Toronto’s Basilian-run St. Michael’s College School came under fire in 2018 for not telling authorities for days about a cellphone video showing students sexually assaulting another boy.
Police confirm they only went to St. Mike’s to investigate after CityNews asked them about anonymous information that an incident had taken place at the school. It was only when officers arrived at St. Mike’s to follow up on our questions that the principal shared the videos with authorities.
At the time, St. Michael’s principal Greg Reeves said he held off on promptly informing police about the locker-room video because the victim hadn’t yet told his family about the incident.
Reeves, and the Basilian president of St Mike’s, Father Jefferson Thompson, would resign from their posts at the prestigious private school a week after the incident.
The pair cited “their shared desire to move the school forward without distractions and allow it to focus on healing and change after the horrific events of student misbehaviour that came to light,” according to a statement released by the school at the time. The Chair of St. Michael’s board, Michael Forsayeth, added that the pair “fulfilled their moral and ethical obligations to manage the immediate crisis.”
Before resigning, Reeves said, “The reality is that I had to make a decision at that time, and when I saw that video, the victim became my most important person. He at that point was the priority,” Reeves added that the next step he took was to “set up expulsion meetings.”
CityNews asked police at the time whether St. Mike’s school administration should have informed them of the sex assault video sooner. Inspector Dominic Sinopoli, commander of Toronto Police’s sex crimes unit, bluntly said: “Yes.”
Handling allegations from the past
An updated 2007 copy of the Basilians’ sexual abuse policy states that if a priest under suspicion is still around children he will be reassigned to a job that “temporarily prevents the individual from having contact with minors.”
The Basilians also note in their original statement that, “For reports of historical abuse, by an adult, for whom a perpetrator might be alive, we respect the right of the victim to report that abuse to the police, or not.”
“If their choice is to report to the police, we would be fully supportive. If their choice is not to report the matter to the police, we will not do so, nor would the police even accept a report from us in such a situation.”
Talach believes the grey area in our duty to report legislation is fraying the fabric of our communities.
“Look: the price of childhood sexual abuse on our society, on a very pragmatic and practical level, is huge. Go into a prison talk to the number of incarcerated people who were abused as children,” he says. “This is a rot, undermining the solid foundation of this nation and every nation.”
Full new statement from the Basilian Fathers of Toronto
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