12 April 2010
At least two million Canadians personally know someone, a friend, relative or acquaintance, who has been sexually assaulted by a Roman Catholic priest, suggests a new national poll.
It also suggests that a majority of Canadians, and even a majority of Roman Catholics, believe Pope Benedict XVI is guilty of covering up abuse by pedophile priests.
The Ipsos Reid survey, carried out last week for Canwest News Service and Global Television, shows that child abuse scandals — which for years have troubled the Catholic Church and now directly threaten the Pope — are deeply felt in Canada, where Catholics and non-Catholics alike are unhappy with the Church’s handling of the crisis.
“Two million people is a shocking number, admitting that they personally know someone sexually abused by a Roman Catholic priest,” says John Wright, senior vice president of Ipsos Reid Pubic Affairs. “This is not something that can evade scrutiny.”
Thomas Rosica, a priest in Toronto who is CEO of the Salt and Light Catholic Television Network, says the Church shares the concerns found in the survey. But he calls the poll “misleading and sensationalistic,” because it fails to include the Church’s efforts in Canada to respond to victims and become more transparent.
“And we must not forget that most of the cases being addressed in the media these days date back decades,” he says.
Ipsos-Reid surveyed 1,003 Canadians by telephone last week. Eight per cent of respondents, and seven per cent of Roman Catholics surveyed — numbers that if extrapolated across Canada would equal two million people — personally know a victim of sexual abuse by a Catholic priest.
The results on this question were highest in British Columbia (11 per cent) and Atlantic Canada (10 per cent), Quebec (nine per cent), Alberta (eight per cent) and lowest in Saskatchewan and Manitoba (three per cent each). For Ontario, the result was six per cent.
The survey also found:
– Six per cent of all respondents and eight per cent of Roman Catholics surveyed, personally know of a Catholic priest in their parish or neighbourhood who has been criminally charged with sexual assault;
– Fifty-eight per cent, and 54 per cent of Catholics, believe Pope Benedict has “perpetuated a climate of silence and cover up around pedophile priests.”
– Twenty-nine per cent, and 37 per cent of Catholics, believe instead that the Pope is being unfairly targeted in this scandal;
– Sixty-nine per cent, and 80 per cent of Roman Catholics, believe the proportion of pedophile priests among the Catholic clergy is minor, and that only a small number are harming the Church’s reputation;
– Sixty-four per cent, and 55 per cent of Catholics surveyed, are not satisfied with the Church’s efforts to root out predatory pedophiles among its priests;
– Fifty-five per cent of respondents, and 57 per cent of Catholics, said they are satisfied with the way police and the justice system are investigating allegations of abuse against Catholic clergy. However, only 14 per cent, and 19 per cent of Catholics, said they are “very satisfied” with the justice system’s response.
John McKiggan, a Halifax lawyer who has represented hundreds of victims of clergy sexual abuse, says people need to remember that the institutional abuse of children is not only a Catholic problem.
“I’ve sued the Anglicans, I’ve sued the United Church, I’ve sued the Baptist church, I’ve sued provincial and federal government jails, the Boy Scouts and foster homes,” McKiggan says. “In any institutional setting, where there are people in power and people who are vulnerable, you are going to have people who take advantage of that imbalance. It happens regardless of the religious faith of the persons involved.
“That being said, the vast majority of my claims involve victims from the Catholic Church.”
As in the U.S. and Ireland, the Catholic Church in Canada has for years lived under the dark clouds of childhood abuse scandals, including the terror inflicted on children by Christian Brothers at the Mount Cashel orphanage in Newfoundland, and abuse of native children at Church-run Indian Residential Schools.
Victims and Catholic clergy have complained of a system of coverup — of failing to eject known abusers from the priesthood — perpetuated by the Church hierarchy.
This year, evidence surfaced from two past abuse cases in California and Germany that linked such practices to decisions by Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger, before he became Pope Benedict.
“The most striking statistic in the (Ipsos Reid) survey is the fact that the majority of Canadians believe the Pope is involved in covering up allegations of abuse,” says McKiggan.
“This comes at a time when churches of all faiths are losing members and incomes, and people are leaving because of frustrations or other concerns. Whether or not these questions about the Pope are even true, they pose a huge additional problem for the Catholic Church.”
Rosica says the Church in Canada has put new protocols in place to prevent future cases of abuse, but hasn’t properly explained its efforts to the public.
“We still have a long way to go,” he says, “to communicate forcefully and clearly what we have done to respond to the crisis, and what remains to done as we improve our protocols, care for victims, and to ensure that these heinous crimes will never happen again.”
The results of the Ipsos Reid poll are considered accurate within 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.