Published On Fri May 7 2010
YouTube screen grab of Bishop James Wingle in August 2009.
Sandro Contenta and Jim Rankin Staff Reporters
It’s been a month since Bishop James Wingle cited a lack of “stamina” as the reason for abruptly resigning as head of the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Catharines.
His portrait still hangs in the hallway of the chancery in Thorold, and a picture of him remains on the diocese website, just to the right of the Pope’s.
Yet no one seems to know what’s become of him. Not even his temporary replacement, the young Monsignor Wayne Kirkpatrick, knows where Wingle is. He has a big box of mail for the bishop but no forwarding address.
With the Roman Catholic Church embroiled in a growing sex scandal, Wingle announced his departure on April 7 with a vaguely-worded letter that referred to unspecified “shortcomings.” He said he was going on a sabbatical, “centered on prayer and personal renewal.”
His exit has baffled and worried people he worked closely with. Only days earlier, Wingle was handing out Easter candies to nuns, attending meetings and making plans. And then — gone.
Speculation was rampant. It still is.
This from a posting on an online Catholic forum: “Everyone is afraid of not knowing where Fr. Wingle went to . . . we are all hoping that he is okay!”
Says Rev. Thomas Rosica, chief executive officer of Canada’s Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation and a communications adviser to the Vatican: “He’s out of the country — that’s all we know. Where? God only knows.”
Wingle, 63, is an avid traveller. He became a bishop in 1993, serving first in Yarmouth, N.S, and later, in St. Catharines.
He is well-respected and outspoken. He denounced the nomination of Dr. Henry Morgentaler for an Order of Canada and was one of the key organizers of World Youth Day in Toronto in 2002.
The bishop’s resignation was accepted by the Pope three days after Easter Sunday, under a part of Canon law that requests a bishop resign if he can no longer fulfill his duties due to illness or other serious reasons.
“It came as a surprise to us all,” Kirkpatrick told The Catholic Register. “People were really shocked.” Monsignor Dominic Pizzacalla, the diocese’s Vicar General, described Wingle at the time as having worked under “tremendous pressures and stress.”
The resignation came two weeks after a former priest, Donald Grecco, pleaded guilty to sexually molesting three former altar boys between 1978 and 1986 while a parish priest in Cayuga and, later, in Welland.
Two of the victims had previously complained directly to the diocese. One came forward in Sept., 2001, four months before Wingle was installed as bishop of the diocese. The second came under Wingle’s watch in 2005.
The second victim was interviewed by a senior church official, and court was told that “nothing” was done. Police arrested Grecco in 2008 following a three-month investigation. An Ontario Provincial Police search warrant, executed on the diocese, uncovered the first victim. A third came forward after police issued a press release.
Grecco pleaded guilty in a Hamilton court to all charges on March 23. He is to be sentenced on June 3.
It’s not known whether this case has anything to do with Wingle’s resignation. Kirkpatrick won’t say what steps Wingle or the church took when the victims came forward with their allegations. He said he won’t discuss the case because it is still before the courts.
Pizzacalla interviewed the victim who came forward in 2005. He told the Star that church protocols for dealing with sex abuse allegations were followed.
“There are procedures that we go through and the procedures were carried out,” he says.
Pizzacalla refused to specify what those procedures are, saying they could be found on the diocese’s website. Unlike other dioceses, it appears St. Catharines does not post its policy.
Rosica says people have a right to know what actions Wingle and the diocese took.
“It doesn’t smell right,” says Rosica, a Toronto-based member of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, which advises the Pope on, among other things, how to handle sex abuse scandals.
“When the (resignation) announcement came out, I had a number of bishops phoning me and say, ‘What the hell is going on?’ And I said, ‘You’re asking me!’ ”
He adds: “The timing was unbelievable.”
Wingle’s resignation and whereabouts are also a mystery to the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, an association all the country’s bishops belong to but which exercises no authority over the way dioceses are run.
“If you find out, tell me,” said conference spokesperson Christine Choury, referring to Wingle’s whereabouts. Choury was stunned to learn that officials at the St. Catharines diocese refuse to speak to the media about Wingle.
Bishop Paul-Andre Durocher of the Diocese of Alexandria-Cornwall, a member of the conference’s permanent council, says he too is in the dark about Wingle.
“People are raising all sorts of questions, so I can understand people’s desire to know,” he said. “At the same time, I believe there’s a right to personal privacy. This can be a very private issue which has nothing to do with what is preoccupying people, and I think we have to respect that.”
With the diocese saying little, there are many questions left unanswered. How did it deal with Grecco after the first victim brought allegations of sexual abuse to church officials in 2001? Was Grecco moved to a different parish?
It is unclear when Grecco, now 70, stopped being a priest. He appears to have been active when Wingle became bishop. Pizzacalla, who interviewed Grecco after the second victim came forward in 2005, says he was no longer exercising his ministry at that time.
Grecco has been working as a grief counsellor and appears to have married.
Donald Joseph Grecco comes from a prominent Ontario Catholic family. He’s one of four brothers who became priests. One of them, Richard, was appointed bishop of the Diocese of Charlottetown in 2009, and had earlier served as auxiliary bishop in Toronto.
In the late ’70s, Donald Grecco served as a parish priest in Cayuga. Over the course of a year, he abused a young altar boy who was part of a youth group and was often at the church, including a period when he was paid to paint the parish hall.
The boy was the victim of 12 acts of gross indecency. He complained to the diocese in 2005.
In the summer of 1979, Grecco took another altar boy to a cottage, perhaps near Collingwood, court heard. During the drive up, the boy did poorly on a spelling game, and Grecco informed him he would be punished upon arrival.
The two had no further contact, and in 2001, the former altar boy made his complaint to the diocese, according to facts read out in court.
Between 1984 and 1986, while Grecco was stationed at a church in Welland, he abused a third altar boy. Grecco would invite the boy into his sitting room or bedroom, and into the rectory. There was also an incident at Grecco’s house and at a cottage. There were 10 instances of abuse, all of them nearly identical. One was punishment for stuttering during a church reading.
Police initiated an investigation in 2008 after one of the victims complained. Grecco was charged in September of that year. Following a press release, another victim came forward. A routine search warrant on church offices uncovered the third victim. Additional charges were laid. The case was moved from Cayuga to Hamilton.
At the Catholic Centre in Thorold, an unremarkable brown brick building on the Merrittville Highway, near Brock University, Msgr. Kirkpatrick finds himself in charge of the St. Catharines diocese, at least until a new bishop is appointed.
In an email response to 17 Star questions about Grecco, Wingle, and church protocols, Kirkpatrick answered none of them. He said “the Diocese of St. Catharines has nothing to add to the statement issued by Bishop Wingle.”
Father Thomas Rosica, who knows Kirkpatrick, called him on April 5 specifically to ask him about Wingle. Kirkpatrick told him the chancery has no telephone number or address for the bishop emeritus.
Kirkpatrick told Rosica that “maybe in the future he’ll resurface and we’ll know where he is.”
Rosica says Kirkpatrick, meanwhile, “finds it personally very frustrating that he doesn’t even have access to him. I believe him, which even makes it more ridiculous.”
The Wingle mystery — and the diocese’s refusal to discuss the Grecco case — highlights the Catholic Church’s questionable relationship with transparency and accountability.
In 1992, after the sex abuse scandals at the Mount Cashel orphanage in Newfoundland, the Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a groundbreaking report in, “From Pain to Hope,” detailing the protocol the diocese should follow when allegations are made.
Yet a year later, a letter to the Vatican by the late bishop of Pembroke, Joseph Windle, made clear that several Ontario bishops were aware that Bernard Prince, a now-defrocked priest convicted of sexual abuse, was transferred to a top Vatican job after allegations against him in Pembroke were known.
In 2005, after sex scandals rocked the Catholic Church in the United States, the Canadian bishops issued a task force report that reviewed the progress made since 1992. It found that victims still saw the church as more interested in protecting pedophile priests and avoiding scandal than in serving justice.
It found that a “small number of dioceses remain extremely reluctant” to adopt sex-abuse protocols. And it recommended that statistics on sexual abuse “committed in the church environment ought to be compiled and eventually published.”
By then, bishops in the U.S. had already ordered their dioceses to compile all allegations made against priests since 1950 and to pass them on to an independent group of academics. The published survey found 4,392 priests with sex abuse allegations.
In Canada, bishops have not conducted a similar survey. The extent of alleged sexual abuse remains unknown.
The U.S. bishops also successfully lobbied the Pope to impose a sexual-abuse protocol — including a “zero tolerance” policy that defrocks priests or bans them from ministry for life — on all American dioceses. In Canada, sex abuse protocols remain at the discretion of bishops, who wield absolute power when it comes to their dioceses.
Durocher is confident that all Ontario dioceses have sex-abuse protocols. (St. Catharines, however, won’t say if it does.) Durocher implemented one after he became bishop of Alexandria-Cornwall in 2002, and discovered that four of his 30 priests were charged with sexual abuse.
Since 2002, Durocher says, one person has complained to the diocese of being abused by a now-deceased priest. Fourteen others launched lawsuits — they were settled for a total of $1.5 million — without first informing the diocese.
“The secrecy behind the allegations is no longer there because people are no longer coming to the dioceses to bring there allegations,” Durocher says. “They go to the police or they go to a lawyer to launch a lawsuit, and all those are public acts.”
Still, Durocher supports making bishops more accountable to parishioners and applauds recent indications from the Vatican that compulsory guidelines on how to deal with sex abuse allegations are expected this fall.
11 May 2010
A May 8 article about the sudden resignation of Bishop James Wingle incorrectly stated that Father Thomas Rosica, chief executive officer of Canada’s Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation and a communications advisor to the Vatican, contacted Wingle’s temporary replacement Monsignor Wayne Kirkpatrick about Wingle’s whereabouts on April 5. In fact, Rosica contacted Kirkpatrick on May 5, approximately one month after Wingle resigned.