— With files from The Associated Press
In a statement to Catholic parishioners this weekend, Bishop Anthony Tonnos will deny he had any knowledge a priest sexually molested altar boys more than a decade before police were aware.
The statement, which was issued to media yesterday, will be read during masses across the city.
A spokesperson for the bishop denied Tonnos, 74, knew about the molestation prior to the accused priest being charged in 2005.
Tonnos, bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Hamilton, is named with five other Canadian church officials in a letter written in 1993 suggesting the bishops were aware of a pedophile priest but failed to act. The now-defrocked priest, Bernard Prince, was not charged until 2005.
Yesterday, the diocese’s Auxiliary Bishop Gerard Bergie said Tonnos only learned about the allegations against Prince in 2005, when Prince was charged, and was “surprised” by the news about the charges. He said Tonnos did not know he was mentioned in the letter until it surfaced in a story yesterday in the Globe and Mail.
“Bishop Tonnos states categorically that he knew nothing of any misbehaviour of Bernard Prince in 1993,” Bergie read from the statement prepared for their parishes.
Tonnos did not respond to the allegations personally yesterday. Bergie said that was because the diocese wanted to remain consistent with its past communications with the press, adding that he is the appointed spokesperson.
“(Tonnos) is known as a man of integrity and a man of his word,” Bergie said. “If he has stated he did not know of these allegations, hopefully people believe him.”
The 1993 letter which names Tonnos was written by a fellow bishop. It recommends the Vatican not promote or honour then-monsignor Prince because it would cause the scandal to become public. Prince then held a Vatican post.
It was written by the late Bishop Joseph Windle of Pembroke, Ont., to the Pope’s envoy to Canada, Carlo Curis. In it, Windle advised the Vatican not promote Prince because it might anger abuse victims and result in charges or lawsuits once the allegations came to light.
Windle wrote that Tonnos and “several” bishops in Ontario were aware of the situation because they were “involved directly or indirectly with Fr. Prince.” Windle said the bishops agreed with his “assessment” of the potential impact of promoting Prince.
The letter, dated Feb. 10, 1993, was an exhibit filed in a civil suit filed by abuse victims against the Pembroke diocese.
Bergie said Tonnos became “acquaintances” with Prince while they were both students at the Pontifical Canadian College in Rome from 1963 to 1965.
“They were acquaintances. Other than that, I don’t think there was anything beyond that,” Bergie said.
He said they did not know why Tonnos was named in Windle’s letter. Tonnos’ connection to Windle is only as a “brother bishop,” Bergie said.
Prince was the secretary-general of the Vatican’s Pontifical Society for the Propagation of the Faith from 1991 until he retired in 2004. He was convicted in 2008 and is serving a four-year jail sentence for sexually molesting 13 boys between 1964 and 1984.
He was defrocked last year by Pope Benedict XVI.
Tonnos, who is originally from Port Colborne, has been with the diocese of Hamilton since 1993.
“I think we’ll continue to serve the people as we have,” Bergie said. “I don’t think the bishop can say anything more.”
The letter surfaces in the midst of mounting scrutiny of the scandal-battered Roman Catholic church.
Don Swenson, a sociology of religion professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary and a practising Catholic, said the church now needs to react to the controversy with a “spirit of humility.”
“All humans are flawed,” he said. “There’s darkness in each one of our hearts. But if we try to say it’s not, then we’ve got a problem.”