24 November 1999
BY GRAEME HAMILTON
ST. JOHN’S, NFLD. • Among the letters of praise, academic grades and routine Church business in Father Kevin Bennett‘s personnel file, there is just one clue that he failed in his calling — a copy of a letter from his bishop asking that he be granted early parole.
The Feb. 29, 1992, letter from Bishop Raymond Lahey was sent to a New Brunswick prison as Father Bennett served a four-year sentence for sex assaults on 36 boys. It was filed as an exhibit yesterday as part of civil suit in Newfoundland Supreme Court. The 36 plaintiffs are seeking unspecified damages from the Roman Catholic Church and Father Bennett for abuse stretching over nearly 20 years.
In the letter, Bishop Lahey told the prison’s case management officer that the Church would provide therapy for Father Bennett upon his release and assure that “he has the security and guidance to once again lead a normal life within society.”
Bishop Lahey expressed his hope that Father Bennett would be successful in an upcoming parole hearing “as I quite uncertain [sic] what can be gained at this point, either for him or for society, by his continued incarceration”
Yesterday, lawyers for the plaintiffs asked Bishop Lahey, who is named as a defendant in the suit, why Father Bennett’s file is virtually silent on his now notorious crimes. Earlier witnesses have testified that clergy members were made aware of the allegations against Father Bennett as early as 1969, shortly before he was transferred to another parish.
Then in 1979, a victim of Father Bennett complained about the priest to Archbishop Alphonsus Penney of St. John’s. Archbishop Penney has testified that he referred the complaint to Bishop Richard McGrath, Bishop Lahey’s predecessor in the western Newfoundland diocese of St. George’s where Father Bennett was stationed.
Bishop Lahey, who was made bishop in 1986, agreed that it was unusual that there was no mention of the earlier complaints in Father Bennett’s file. He said he did not learn of the allegations until Father Bennett, now 66, was charged in 1989.
The absence of information on the sexual-abuse complaints against Father Bennett could be explained by the fact that Bishop McGrath was suffering from Alzheimer’s when he was informed of the matter in 1979, Bishop Lahey testified.
One of the plaintiffs testified Monday that Father Bennett was transferred to a new parish soon after a boy complained in 1969 to other clergy about Father Bennett’s abuse. Father Bennett blamed the transfer on the complaint, the plaintiff said.
But there is no indication of trouble in a 1970 letter to Father Bennett from Bishop McGrath officially appointing him to his new parish. The letter commends Father Bennett and informs him he is “held in high esteem by me and your colleagues.”
Gregory Stack, lawyer for most of the plaintiffs, said he is “flabbergasted” that the only mention of trouble in Father Bennett’s file is a letter of support from his bishop. “When we received that file, I said it must have been routed through the Health Sciences Centre because it was so sanitary,” he said outside the courtroom.
David Buffett, lawyer for the Church and for Bishop Lahey, defended the letter supporting Father Bennett’s early release. “It would be going against Christianity to turn one’s back on someone like that, would it not,” he asked Bishop La-hey, who replied that it would.