In St. Catharines, it’s silence for the lambs

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Hamilton Spectator
   
July 25, 2010

DUNNVILLE, ONT.—Two months after Bishop James Wingle abruptly resigned and disappeared, word that he had been spotted in Jerusalem swept his St. Catharines diocese.

Parishioners and priests were hungry for news of the missing bishop. But officials temporarily running the Catholic diocese quickly moved to reassert a wall of silence.

On June 4, the Chancery office sent to all priests the weekly bulletin that under Wingle had been known as the “folksy Friday fax.”

“Please keep Bishop Wingle in your prayers,” its first item read. “Please refrain from spreading any rumours about him.”

Secrecy seems the policy of choice for the diocese’s authorities.

If Wingle’s whereabouts was the only issue, the silence could be seen as respect for his privacy. But the say-nothing approach extends to a sex scandal that partly unfolded under Wingle’s watch — and that has parishioners and priests increasingly concerned.

Some are openly challenging the diocese’s silence, demanding an accounting from authorities suspected of shrugging off sex abuse complaints against Donald Joseph Grecco, a former priest who pleaded guilty March 23 to sexually molesting three altar boys between 1978 and 1986. He has yet to be sentenced.

“Was the person known to have been an abuser and it wasn’t taken care of? Then something should be done to the people who didn’t do their jobs,” says Rev. Stephen Collins, chaplain at the Niagara Falls General Hospital.

“We can get into big trouble talking to the press about this,” Collins added. “But many of us would like people to know that we do care a great deal.”

Sylvia Weaver, a parishioner who mentored one of Grecco’s victims when he told the diocese of his abuse in 2005 while Wingle was in charge, says: “We need some answers.”

These are trying times for the diocese that serves 150,000 Catholics living between Hamilton and Niagara Falls. Since April 7, when Wingle suddenly resigned and disappeared, the flock has faced its doubts without a shepherd.

Church attendance hasn’t declined. But Collins says the diocese’s handling of the Grecco case is raising spiritual doubts.

“Some people have said very clearly that their faith is being challenged,” says Collins, who joined the diocese in 1986.

The hopes of some are resting on the appointment of a new bishop. They want him to examine why Grecco was moved to two parishes after the mother of a victim complained in 1986 that he abused her son.

“We are hoping and praying that we get a new bishop who has a very firm hand and will not allow this to happen again,” says Weaver, 71, a Dunnville resident who runs a foot care business, co-chairs the local genealogical society and has co-researched books that list the baptisms and marriages of the area’s Catholic settlers, beginning in 1837.

At its 48 parishes, priests have been instructed to use special prayers for the appointment of a new bishop: “Lord . . . give us the joy of receiving a shepherd who will be an example of goodness to your people and will fill our hearts and minds with the trust of the Gospel.”

“Hopefully,” says Rev. Jim Mulligan, of St. Kevin’s parish in Welland, “with a new bishop, we’ll be able to have the healing that’s necessary with the victims, and then install the confidence that we need to get the ship going in a good direction.”

But the Vatican is notoriously slow to appoint. In Ireland, in the diocese of Limerick, for example, Bishop Donal Murray resigned in December 2009 after dismissing complaints about a priest who went on to sexually abuse children again. His replacement has yet to be named.

At St. Catharines, there is hope selection will be expedited by the recent appointment of Quebec Cardinal Marc Ouellet as head of the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, a committee that vets candidates for bishops. Ouellet, who is also the Primate of Canada, is aware of the diocese’s troubles.

The new bishop will face a diocese one priest describes as “dysfunctional.”

Its silence seems out of step with recent attempts by the Vatican to demonstrate it takes sex scandals rocking the Roman Catholic Church seriously. Pope Benedict XVI has met with victims, vowed to root out abusive priests and, earlier this month, toughened church laws to deal with them.

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops has for years detailed the protocol dioceses should follow when allegations are made, and recommended the procedures be posted on websites or distributed publicly.

A Star search found only five of Ontario’s 14 dioceses with clear web links to sex abuse protocols. St. Catharines isn’t one of them. More disturbing perhaps is that some St. Catharines priests don’t know whether a local sex abuse protocol exists, beyond instructions to refer allegations to the Chancery.

“You’re talking a foreign tongue when you talk about protocols to me,” says Collins. “I think there’s some kind of procedure but I don’t really know what it would be.”

Says another priest, who asked to remain anonymous: “What is our (protocol)? I’ve never seen anything in print.”

The first Catholic church in the Niagara Peninsula was opened in 1831 to serve Irish labourers building the Welland Canal. The Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Catharines was established in 1958.

It took its name from the fourth-century Christian martyr in Alexandria, Egypt, whose life was “miraculously” saved when the spiked wheel on which she was being tortured broke. She was later beheaded. The broken “Catherine wheel” and the Welland Canal are represented on the diocese’s crest.

Wingle, 63, arrived in January 2002, after serving nine years as the Bishop of Yarmouth, N.S. He is widely described as a personable man. But some priests question whether he was cut out for the pressures and politics of his office.

He found a diocese with two priests ordained there stripped of their religious powers. John Knight lost them in 2000, after unspecified allegations of sexual misconduct. He spent 25 years as a priest in the St. Catharines diocese before becoming an auxiliary bishop in Toronto.

Rev. James Kneale was convicted in 1985 of sexually molesting a teenager during “sleepovers” at Kneale’s rectory residence. When the victim launched a civil suit for damages, Kneale and the diocese played hardball: they countersued the victim’s parents. The suit was settled after a 10-year legal battle that left the victim and his once-devout Catholic family shattered.

Kneale repeatedly lobbied Wingle to regain his priestly powers, according to a priest who spent years working at the diocese. Wingle refused him every time.

Kneale has the backing of a significant minority of priests in the diocese, according to three priests interviewed by the Star. “The good-old-boys syndrome,” one priest calls it.

At a meeting a year ago, about a dozen priests discussed Kneale’s reinstatement. Some argued Wingle was being unfair, that Kneale had served his punishment and deserved another chance. Kneale was at the meeting; Wingle was invited but refused to attend.

“He took flak because of his zero-tolerance policies,” says the priest no longer at the diocese, referring to Wingle’s position on sex abuse.

About a year after Wingle arrived, he forced a priest to retire after parents complained of inappropriate behaviour with youths.

But Wingle’s handling of the Grecco case is being questioned.

Grecco left the diocese sometime after Wingle took charge. During Grecco’s court hearings, the judge was told “nothing” was done when a third victim took allegations of abuse to the diocese in 2005. (Monsignor Dominic Pizzacalla, the diocese’s Vicar General, told the Star in May that “procedures” were followed, but refused to specify what they were.)

The Star has learned Wingle issued a memo to all diocesan priests March 18 — three weeks before he resigned — making clear they were not to speak to the media about Grecco.

“Should you be contacted by agents of the media for statements or comments, it would be wise to simply refrain from comment and refer the queries to (Judicial Vicar) Msgr. Wayne Kirkpatrick at the Catholic Centre,” the memo stated.

There were other pressures on Wingle, some reflecting the divide between progressives and conservatives that has racked the Roman Catholic Church since the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s.

As a bishop known for strictly following the policies and doctrinal interpretations of the Vatican, Wingle was squarely in the conservative camp. He had a less collegial approach to governance than his predecessor.

He came under pressure for ending the practice of general absolution — where priests collectively absolve worshippers of their sins without the need for private confessions. In so doing, he was following guidelines set out by the late Pope John Paul II in 2002. The result was more work for priests and more grief for Wingle, who had to face down regular attempts by priests to reinstate it.

“That kind of stuff wore on him,” the priest no longer at the diocese says.

Wingle also “hit brick walls” trying to rescind some decisions made by officials in his office. They once allowed a non-Catholic to receive communion — a ruling that left Wingle “seething,” the priest said.

A bad back made matters worse. Wingle injured it several years ago when his nephew flew off a swing and landed on the bishop’s chest. Then he hurt it shovelling snow from his driveway. In January, his car was rear-ended, landing him in a doctor’s office with his fragile back in pain.

The death of a relative in a car accident last fall added a heavy emotional strain to Wingle’s physical and professional pressures, according to priests who know him.

Then Grecco pleaded guilty.

“Bishop Wingle probably knew there would be unending phone calls and things to deal with, and he would have had to basically fight that battle mostly by himself,” says the priest, referring to the questions the Grecco case would raise and the changes it would likely force.

Wingle resigned with a vague letter that referred to unspecified “shortcomings.” He cited a lack of “stamina,” adding he was going on a sabbatical, “centred on prayer and personal renewal.”

“At a time when we need transparency and we need to be very open, the abrupt departure kind of flew in the face of that,” says Mulligan. “It just added to the suspicion, the discouragement and the lack of clarity in things.”

The College of Consultors, made up of six priests, elected Kirkpatrick diocesan administrator and placed him temporarily in charge. In May, he declined to answer emailed questions from the Star, saying the Grecco case was still before the courts. He hasn’t responded to subsequent emails asking for comment.

Wingle, meanwhile, recently resurfaced through emails sent to some priests. In one, he says he is “at peace.”

Many in the diocese he abandoned are praying for a similar state of mind.

Torstar News Service

_____________________________

In St. Catharines, it’s silence for the lambs

Parishioners and priests are in the dark as troubled diocese awaits a new bishop, and answers to old questions

Published On Sat Jul 24 2010

Parishioners of the St. Catharines Diocese are wondering why Bishop James Wingle abruptly resigned last spring and where he has gone to.
(Parishioners of the St. Catharines Diocese are wondering why Bishop James Wingle abruptly resigned last spring and where he has gone to. Tobi Cohen/CP)

Sandro Contenta Jim Rankin Feature Writers

DUNNVILLE, ONT.—Two months after Bishop James Wingle abruptly resigned and disappeared, word that he had been spotted in Jerusalem swept his St. Catharines diocese.

Parishioners and priests were hungry for news of the missing bishop. But officials temporarily running the Catholic diocese quickly moved to reassert a wall of silence.

On June 4, the Chancery office sent to all priests the weekly bulletin that under Wingle had been known as the “folksy Friday fax.”

“Please keep Bishop Wingle in your prayers,” its first item read. “Please refrain from spreading any rumours about him.”

Secrecy seems the policy of choice for the diocese’s authorities.

If Wingle’s whereabouts was the only issue, the silence could be seen as respect for his privacy. But the say-nothing approach extends to a sex scandal that partly unfolded under Wingle’s watch — and that has parishioners and priests increasingly concerned.

Some are openly challenging the diocese’s silence, demanding an accounting from authorities suspected of shrugging off sex abuse complaints against Donald Joseph Grecco, a former priest who pleaded guilty March 23 to sexually molesting three altar boys between 1978 and 1986. He has yet to be sentenced.

“Was the person known to have been an abuser and it wasn’t taken care of? Then something should be done to the people who didn’t do their jobs,” says Rev. Stephen Collins, chaplain at the Niagara Falls General Hospital.

“We can get into big trouble talking to the press about this,” Collins added. “But many of us would like people to know that we do care a great deal.”

Sylvia Weaver, a parishioner who mentored one of Grecco’s victims when he told the diocese of his abuse in 2005 while Wingle was in charge, says: “We need some answers.”

These are trying times for the diocese that serves 150,000 Catholics living between Hamilton and Niagara Falls. Since April 7, when Wingle suddenly resigned and disappeared, the flock has faced its doubts without a shepherd.

Church attendance hasn’t declined. But Collins says the diocese’s handling of the Grecco case is raising spiritual doubts

.“Some people have said very clearly that their faith is being challenged,” says Collins, who joined the diocese in 1986.

The hopes of some are resting on the appointment of a new bishop. They want him to examine why Grecco was moved to two parishes after the mother of a victim complained in 1986 that he abused her son.

“We are hoping and praying that we get a new bishop who has a very firm hand and will not allow this to happen again,” says Weaver, 71, a Dunnville resident who runs a foot care business, co-chairs the local genealogical society and has co-researched books that list the baptisms and marriages of the area’s Catholic settlers, beginning in 1837.

At its 48 parishes, priests have been instructed to use special prayers for the appointment of a new bishop: “Lord . . . give us the joy of receiving a shepherd who will be an example of goodness to your people and will fill our hearts and minds with the trust of the Gospel.”

“Hopefully,” says Rev. Jim Mulligan, of St. Kevin’s parish in Welland, “with a new bishop, we’ll be able to have the healing that’s necessary with the victims, and then install the confidence that we need to get the ship going in a good direction.”

But the Vatican is notoriously slow to appoint. In Ireland, in the diocese of Limerick, for example, Bishop Donal Murray resigned in December 2009 after dismissing complaints about a priest who went on to sexually abuse children again. His replacement has yet to be named.

At St. Catharines, there is hope selection will be expedited by the recent appointment of Quebec Cardinal Marc Ouellet as head of the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, a committee that vets candidates for bishops. Ouellet, who is also the Primate of Canada, is aware of the diocese’s troubles.

The new bishop will face a diocese one priest describes as “dysfunctional.”

Its silence seems out of step with recent attempts by the Vatican to demonstrate it takes sex scandals rocking the Roman Catholic Church seriously. Pope Benedict XVI has met with victims, vowed to root out abusive priests and, earlier this month, toughened church laws to deal with them.

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops has for years detailed the protocol dioceses should follow when allegations are made, and recommended the procedures be posted on websites or distributed publicly.

A Star search found only five of Ontario’s 14 dioceses with clear web links to sex abuse protocols. St. Catharines isn’t one of them. More disturbing perhaps is that some St. Catharines priests don’t know whether a local sex abuse protocol exists, beyond instructions to refer allegations to the Chancery.

“You’re talking a foreign tongue when you talk about protocols to me,” says Collins. “I think there’s some kind of procedure but I don’t really know what it would be.”

Says another priest, who asked to remain anonymous: “What is our (protocol)? I’ve never seen anything in print.”

The first Catholic church in the Niagara Peninsula was opened in 1831 to serve Irish labourers building the Welland Canal. The Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Catharines was established in 1958.

It took its name from the fourth-century Christian martyr in Alexandria, Egypt, whose life was “miraculously” saved when the spiked wheel on which she was being tortured broke. She was later beheaded. The broken “Catherine wheel” and the Welland Canal are represented on the diocese’s crest.

Wingle, 63, arrived in January 2002, after serving nine years as the Bishop of Yarmouth, N.S. He is widely described as a personable man. But some priests question whether he was cut out for the pressures and politics of his office. 

He found a diocese with two priests ordained there stripped of their religious powers. John Knight lost them in 2000, after unspecified allegations of sexual misconduct. He spent 25 years as a priest in the St. Catharines diocese before becoming an auxiliary bishop in Toronto.

Rev. James Kneale was convicted in 1985 of sexually molesting a teenager during “sleepovers” at Kneale’s rectory residence. When the victim launched a civil suit for damages, Kneale and the diocese played hardball: they countersued the victim’s parents. The suit was settled after a 10-year legal battle that left the victim and his once-devout Catholic family shattered.

Kneale repeatedly lobbied Wingle to regain his priestly powers, according to a priest who spent years working at the diocese. Wingle refused him every time.

Kneale has the backing of a significant minority of priests in the diocese, according to three priests interviewed by the Star. “The good-old-boys syndrome,” one priest calls it. 

At a meeting a year ago, about a dozen priests discussed Kneale’s reinstatement. Some argued Wingle was being unfair, that Kneale had served his punishment and deserved another chance. Kneale was at the meeting; Wingle was invited but refused to attend.

“He took flak because of his zero-tolerance policies,” says the priest no longer at the diocese, referring to Wingle’s position on sex abuse. 

About a year after Wingle arrived, he forced a priest to retire after parents complained of inappropriate behaviour with youths. 

But Wingle’s handling of the Grecco case is being questioned.

Grecco left the diocese sometime after Wingle took charge. During Grecco’s court hearings, the judge was told “nothing” was done when a third victim took allegations of abuse to the diocese in 2005. (Monsignor Dominic Pizzacalla, the diocese’s Vicar General, told the Star in May that “procedures” were followed, but refused to specify what they were.)

The Star has learned Wingle issued a memo to all diocesan priests March 18 — three weeks before he resigned — making clear they were not to speak to the media about Grecco.

“Should you be contacted by agents of the media for statements or comments, it would be wise to simply refrain from comment and refer the queries to (Judicial Vicar) Msgr. Wayne Kirkpatrick at the Catholic Centre,” the memo stated.

There were other pressures on Wingle, some reflecting the divide between progressives and conservatives that has racked the Roman Catholic Church since the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s.

As a bishop known for strictly following the policies and doctrinal interpretations of the Vatican, Wingle was squarely in the conservative camp. He had a less collegial approach to governance than his predecessor.

He came under pressure for ending the practice of general absolution — where priests collectively absolve worshippers of their sins without the need for private confessions. In so doing, he was following guidelines set out by the late Pope John Paul II in 2002. The result was more work for priests and more grief for Wingle, who had to face down regular attempts by priests to reinstate it.

“That kind of stuff wore on him,” the priest no longer at the diocese says.

Wingle also “hit brick walls” trying to rescind some decisions made by officials in his office. They once allowed a non-Catholic to receive communion — a ruling that left Wingle “seething,” the priest said.

A bad back made matters worse. Wingle injured it several years ago when his nephew flew off a swing and landed on the bishop’s chest. Then he hurt it shovelling snow from his driveway. In January, his car was rear-ended, landing him in a doctor’s office with his fragile back in pain.

The death of a relative in a car accident last fall added a heavy emotional strain to Wingle’s physical and professional pressures, according to priests who know him.

Then Grecco pleaded guilty.

“Bishop Wingle probably knew there would be unending phone calls and things to deal with, and he would have had to basically fight that battle mostly by himself,” says the priest, referring to the questions the Grecco case would raise and the changes it would likely force.

Wingle resigned with a vague letter that referred to unspecified “shortcomings.” He cited a lack of “stamina,” adding he was going on a sabbatical, “centred on prayer and personal renewal.”

“At a time when we need transparency and we need to be very open, the abrupt departure kind of flew in the face of that,” says Mulligan. “It just added to the suspicion, the discouragement and the lack of clarity in things.”

The College of Consultors, made up of six priests, elected Kirkpatrick diocesan administrator and placed him temporarily in charge. In May, he declined to answer emailed questions from the Star, saying the Grecco case was still before the courts. He hasn’t responded to subsequent emails asking for comment.

Wingle, meanwhile, recently resurfaced through emails sent to some priests. In one, he says he is “at peace.”Many in the diocese he abandoned are praying for a similar state of mind.

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