Charles Lewis: interview with authors of new book on abuse in Canadian Catholic Church

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National Post

November 1, 2010 – 6:04 pm

  Toronto-based Novalis publishing has just released Suffer The Children Unto Me by Canadian journalists Michael W. Higgins and Peter Kavanagh. The book examines the sexual abuse crisis in the Canadian Roman Catholic Church and puts it in the context of the problems occurring in the global Church. It also focuses heavily on the media coverage of the Church and whether it was really fair and balanced.

It is worth noting that both authors are practicing Catholics and Novalis is a Catholic publishing house. Mr. Kavanagh noted that his personal faith was not an impediment to writing the book since inequity wherever it takes place is something that needs to be addressed. Mr. Higgins said that as a Catholic, writing about the sins of the Church was a “painful experience.” But neither man felt their faith hindered their objectivity.

On Monday I sat down with the authors to discuss some of the findings of their book as well as related issues. A full book review will appear on this site in the next few weeks.

HP: Former Supreme Court justice Michel Bastarache delivered his confidential recommendations to a New Brunswick diocese on Monday about what would be appropriate compensation for local victims of sexual abuse. In Antigonish last year the diocese there paid out $13-million in compensation. That financial burden left a lot of resentment among parishioners who felt they were being punished for the sins of others and it has created a terrible problem for local parishes. Is financial compensation the best way to deal with victims?

PK: In modern times this is how you resolve issues. You decide there’s been a wrong and right it through cash, which is a legal response. All kinds of people say the people Antigonish shouldn’t have to pay for this. But the way the Church is structured, the diocese has the legal obligation. It’s not good or bad, it’s just the way it is. People will feel hard done by for something they’re not responsible for. Think of this outside of a Church situation: if a secular institution does wrong, it is the members of that institution that end bearing the cost. Every wrongful conviction in this country [for example] has required the outlay of significant amounts of money out of taxpayers’ pockets.  And even though those taxpayers did nothing wrong, they have to bear the cost.

MH: [These payouts] have a huge impact on the rest of the Christian community. The after-shocks of these cases continue to have considerable effect on the larger Christian community. But there is no other way to deal with it.

HP: Was the case of Bishop Raymond Lahey, who was charged in the summer with the possession and importation of child pornography, the spur for this book?

MH: Absolutely. When the issue arose, and we saw the troubling effect it was having right across the country, we decided there was a need for an organized overview of the Canadian crisis and fit that into the situation in the universal Church. We also wanted to look at the Canadian response compared with the larger Church. We wanted a primer, not an exhaustive study; we also wanted to help phrase the questions that need to be asked. The book is a way you can look at this complex issue and think about some of the challenges on the horizon. To our knowledge there is no other Canadian working text that looks at everything from Mt. Cashel on to today. The Canadian experience is the core.

HP: As Catholics, was this book more of a challenge for you?

MH: At a personal level, this hasn’t been easy. I do a lot of writing about Catholic spirituality, including a biography of Thomas Merton, so dealing now with the underside of the Church has not been a lot of fun. It’s been very painful.

PK: I’m a person who believes all human beings are flawed. And human beings fill the Catholic Church. Was I bothered writing about this? Sure. But I was bothered in the same sense I’m bothered by all inequity.

HP: I got a sense from the book that coverage of abuse in the Church was overblown when compared to abuse in the rest of society. You raise the case of a ring of 35 men in Ontario who were charged with 122 counts of child porn. You note that one of the accused was alleged to have had six million images in his possession on his computer, far more than the 1,000 or so images Bishop Lahey was alleged to have had on his laptop. Yet the coverage of that case was minimal. Do you think the media gives the Church a harder time?

PK: I think the coverage has for the most part has been appropriate. But from time it has been completely out of whack to the incident being covered or even the issue at stake. [Referring back to the case in Ontario,] just in terms of the shear scale of child porn with  35 people walking around with millions of images you would think that was more of a child porn story than Lahey. 

MH: The work of the secular press in exposing scandal in the Church had the positive effect of emboldening the Catholic press to do serious work in this issue. But the leadership came from the secular press.

HP: You raise your frustration with how the Church sometimes gets on the front page of newspapers for crimes that pale in comparison to those that happens outside the Church. But shouldn’t the Church be held to higher accountability because of its claim to being God’s holy institution, literally the Body of Christ on Earth?

PK: Of course; it would be impossible to deny that. In England there are roughly 100,000 registered sex offenders. The last time I checked there were 10 who were clerics or former clerics. You would think from the coverage of the sexual abuse scandal that priests are the most dangerous people in the world in terms of the safety of children. That clearly is not the case. The Church does set it itself up for the agony it experiences and the attention it gets. But does that mean that all the coverage is appropriate or proportional in the context of fairness? No, it doesn’t mean that. I remember the day after the Lahey was caught I was watching a television interview with a Vatican expert in Rome and the host kept saying, “The key question here is what did the Pope know and when did he know it?” That’s kind of a leap going from laying charges against a bishop in Canada to asking what the Pope knew.

MH: I don’t think this is an issue of quantity — comparing priests to abusers in other situations. This has become an issue of how justice is meted out. This has come down to confidence in ecclesial leadership. The debate has shifted from the abusers to the larger issue of governance.

HP: A story came out in the New York Times earlier this year in which the paper alleged that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — now Pope Benedict — in his role as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, ignored letters about an abusive priest in Milwaukee. Many, including the National Post, questioned the credibility of that story. Regardless of its veracity, what impact do you think the Times story had on the Vatican.

PK: The story had two consequences: one good and one negative. It changed the game in terms of how the Vatican was willing to wrestle with this issue. Regardless of the conclusion of the Times story, it forced the Vatican to start paying serious attention towards trying to address the issue. But the story did something damaging to the cause of rooting sexual abusers. The story created an excuse to those who are blind to the abuse crisis [in the Church] and gave them an excuse to prove they were a persecuted minority and that there was anti-Catholic bias in the media. One of the problems with media excess is that it allows some people to dismiss the crisis as “that’s just the media.”

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One Response to Charles Lewis: interview with authors of new book on abuse in Canadian Catholic Church

  1. Sylvia says:

    Dear Lord, spare us from Roman Catholics who minimize the damage done by clerical molesters and the likes of the Bishop Rayond Laheys with the line that ‘everybody else is doing it.’

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