By: Sylvia MacEachern
It’s strange, is it not, how specific events get locked in our minds? Case in point, the memory of Betty Ann Ryan regarding a dressing down she received from her mother back in 1991. Her mother had received a call that morning from young Geoff Ryan, her 16-year-old grandson. He was at the rectory. He was scared.
Betty Ann has never forgotten the dressing down she received from her mother that day.
As for her son Geoff, well, Geoff has his memories too. Geoff has never forgotten what happened at the rectory the night before. He has never forgotten what Father Mike Gillissie whispered in his ear.. He has never forgotten the terror. The banging on the door.
Same event. Different memories. Those of the mother. Those of the son.
It was 1991. March 1991 to be precise.
Young Geoff was 16-years old. He had just received his learner’s licence. He was Roman Catholic. An altar boy. An athlete. Father Mike Gillissie was his parish priest. Father Mike Gillisie was a family friend: he was Geoff’s friend.
March 1991: Five years after Father Dale Crampton, the honorary chaplain to the RCMP, entered a guilty plea to sexually abusing seven young boys.
March 1991: Six months after Father Mike Mullins was acquitted in Ottawa on charges of sexual assaulting a teenage boy. And four months before Father Mullins was sentenced to eight years in jail in Ireland for beating and sexually assaulting a 17-year-old boy
March 1991. Three years after Bishop John Beahen , a frequent visitor to St. Brigid’s Summer Camp, good friend and sometime sexual partner of Father Ken Keeler, died amidst quiet whispers and persistent rumours that he had been molesting boys and was about to be charged.
March 1991: Three months after four young men confronted their molester Father Ken Keeler hoping that he would admit his problem and seek help. And seven months before Father Keeler, the founder/director of St. Brigid’s Summer Camp in Low Quebec. was charged. And two years before Father Keeler was convicted.
March 1991: Two years before Patrick (Pat) Brennan, a truant officer, good friend of Father Ken Keeler, member of the Board of Directors and worker at St. Brigid’s Summer Camp, was sentenced to two years of probation for sexual abusing a 16-year-old boy. The boy was also sexually abused by Keeler.
A mother’s memories
In May of 2016 I received an email from Betty Ann Ryan, an anguished mother. Her 41-year-old son, Geoff, she told me, had been sexually abused by Father Mike Gillissie, a priest with the Archdiocese of Ottawa. Geoff had gone to police about a year earlier. Betty Ann feared that police were not going to lay charges.
Subsequently I spoke to Betty Ann. She was understandably upset. She talked about the abuse her son had suffered as a small boy at the hands of family friend. She talked about Father Gillissie. She related her memories of that day.
Betty Ann recalled that in the mid 80s the family attended St. George’s Roman Catholic Church in Ottawa. The Pastor, Monsignor Gerald Donegan, a priest at the church, had become a regular dinner guest at the Ryan home. When, in 1986, Mike Gillissie arrived at the church as a deacon, he was included in the dinner invitations, both before and after his ordination to the priesthood.
According to Betty Ann, Father Gillissie and her husband were known to enjoy a few drinks. Father Donegan , however, apparently did not look too kindly upon Father Gillissie’s drinking. Indeed Betty Ann recalled occasions when Father Donegan would sternly chide his clerical colleague: “That’s enough” Donegan would scold Gillissie. “That’s enough.”
A friendship formed between Gillissie and the Ryan family. Mike Gillissie became a frequent guest in the Ryan home, both before and after his ordination.
Apart from the interaction with the family at meals and such, there was also a friendship between Father Gillissie and young Geoff. According to Betty Ann, Father Gillissie often called her son to play tennis and to serve Mass.
In 1987 Father Gillissie was assigned to St. Martin de Porres church in Bell’s Corners.
The friendship between priest and family continued. As before, Father Gillissie frequently joined the Ryan household for meals. He joined the family at their summer cottage.
Betty Ann recalled that Father Gillissie was a “very good” friend of Father Ken Keeler, and, by way of interest, that Father Keeler was chaplain at Notre Dame High School on Holland Ave. when Geoff attended the school
And Betty Ann recalled that day. The day her angry mother called.
Actually, it was the day after the dinner. The dinner that evening in March 1991. A Saturday.
Father Gillissie, Betty Ann recalled, had joined the Ryan family for dinner. She remembered that Father Gillissie had become quite inebriated that evening, as had her husband. Father Gillissie, however, had to get back to the rectory. She recalled that, despite his intoxication Father Gillissie had insisted he could drive home on his own. No, he had told Betty Ann, he didn’t want to sleep at their place: He had Mass in the morning.
Try as she might Betty Ann could not talk Father Gillissie into staying the night.
Eventually, according to Betty Ann, there was agreement that 16-year old Geoff, who had just acquired his 365 (now G1) driver’s license would drive Father home, spend the night at the rectory, and be picked up the next day
Away they went. The boy at the wheel, the intoxicated priest his passenger.
Yes, Betty Ann remembered the dinner, but, it is what happened the next day that she will never forget.
They were at the airport that Sunday morning when Betty Ann’s mother phoned. Her mother, she recounted, was furious. Absolutely furious. Geoff had called her (his grandmother) from the rectory, and he was afraid, terribly afraid.
Betty Ann recalled that her mother virtually took a strip off her. How dare Betty Ann let the boy spend the night at the rectory with Father Gillissie: “What the Hell did you do? Do you not think we’ve heard enough of this crap?’ When Betty Ann replied that she trusted Father Gillissie her mother’s instant retort was “Well, that was your first mistake.”
It was quite a dressing down.
Betty Ann’s memory is that Geoff’s Dad probably picked him up. She recalled Geoff being back at home, and asking him what happened? Geoff, she said, told her that Father Gillissie said he loved him, and that he, Geoff, was scared, and had barricaded himself in the bedroom, and that Father Gillissie had pounded and pounded on the bedroom door.
There had been no real sexual contact, Geoff told his mother.
Betty Ann thought the boy was okay.
A few months later a member of the extended family who knew of the incident confided in Msgr. Robert Martineau. The word came back to Betty Ann that Monsignor Martineau would like her to contact him. She never did make the call. She was just so angry, she said. Too angry to make the call. She did not call the Monsignor. The Monsignor did not call her.
To this day Betty Ann has no idea why she did not take further action.
There were more bad memories.
There was Geoff’s drinking. According to Betty Ann, after the incident Geoff began drinking heavily. Extremely heavily. The boy, she said, had been drinking a bit prior to the incident at the rectory, but after that night his drinking escalated.
Then, at age 20, Geoff tried to commit suicide.
There is her son’s on-going battle with depression.
She loves her son. She worries about him.
Betty Ann did not want me to contact her son. She thought at that time he was dealing with things fairly well. She feared the contact would be too upsetting for him.
The weeks and then the months rolled by.
A son’s memories
In late December 2016 along came the following email (typos corrected):
I’m writing to notify the public about Michael Gillissie. This priest assaulted me in 91. He frequented St. Brigid camp where he would get drunk with Keeler and Brennan at the camp. I’m looking for anyone who may have been abused by this pedophile. A parish hall is being named after him at St. Phillips in Richmond. Mike was a high school teacher at Darcy McGee in Aylmer. He was known to be bring children to his residence and get them drunk which is what happened to me. I have an investigation with the Ottawa police. Please feel free to contact me for further details.
Yes, it was Geoff. Initially he had no idea that his mother and I had been in touch.
Through the course of subsequent phone conversations and emails Geoff related details regarding Father Gillissie which were much the same as those shoared by his mother, i.e., the friendship, the meals, the tennis, the calls to serve Mass. Regarding the latter, Geoff recalled that when he was a student at St. George elementary school it was not unusual for him to get called out of school to go to St. George’s Church to serve Mass for Father Gillissie. ( That was St. George elementary school on Piccadilly Ave. It was adjacent to the church. It closed in 2002)
According to Geoff, Father Gillissie liked to get Mass ‘said’ and over with as quickly as possible. In fact, said Geoff, the priest would actually time himself, and while he’s not 100% certain Geoff thinks that Father Gillissie’s record was in the range of 15 or 16 minutes.
He remembered too how Father Gillissiie was forever telling him how special he, Geoff, was, and that he was his favourite. He recalls Father Gillissie asking: ‘You don’t believe in all that God bullshit, do you?’ When young Geoff responded in the affirmative Gillissie’s retort was: ‘You shouldn’t believe in it because it’s all a bunch of b.s..’
Another memory is that of Father Gillissie talking about his visits to St. Brigid’s Summer Camp, and of his friendship with Father Ken Keeler and Pat Brennan. He also related that friends told him about Father Gillissie drinking with Father Keeler and Bishop Beahan at the camp.
And on to that evening….
Geoff recalled that evening. For Geoff, that was THE night.
It was that evening in March of 1991. Geoff was 16.
Here again, Geoff’s recall of events during the dinner are much the same as those of his mother: Father Gillissie was at the Ryan home for dinner; Father Gillissie was drinking heavily; Geoff’s Dad was drinking heavily; Father Gillissie was unfit to drive; Geoff had just attained his Ontario 365 and would drive Father Gillissie back to the rectory. Geoff would be picked up in the morning.
Away they went. The 49-year-old priest, and the 16-year-old boy.
The nightmare began after they got to the rectory.
Father Gillissie continued to drink. He offered drinks to young Geoff. Geoff accepted.
At some point, Father Gillissie began to talk about sex. Geoff recalled the discomfort he felt when the sex talk started. He stood up. Father Gillissie stood up. Then, the priest approached him from behind, wrapped his arms around Geoff’s waist, and began to whisper in his ear. Witness Geoff’s sworn statement, the whispered words related to the priest’s speculation that Geoff must be very well endowed.
Geoff was terrified. He had been sexually abused by a family friend when he was eight. He recalled knowing what was coming. He recalled the terror. Sheer panic. He recalled getting away and into a spare room. He barricaded himself in. He remembered Father Gillissie pounding on the bedroom door yelling “Let me in.”
Yes, in Geoff’s memories, that was THE night.
Life changed after that Saturday night.
Geoff readily admits that up to that time he would drink on the weekends. After that night, the drinking escalated. Seriously escalated. He was, he admitted candidly, drinking constantly.
And there were drugs. Marijuana. Indeed, strange as it may sound, Geoff recalled a night after that night when he smoked marijuana with Father Gillissie at Gillissie’s Aylmer home. Geoff was in Grade 11. There was a student assignment which entailed Father Gillissie. Geoff recalls that he and a few other students, male and female, headed off to Father Gillissie’s home in Aylmer, Quebec. Father Gillissie was drinking and smoking marijuana. Geoff was drinking and smoking marijuana. They all were. Geoff had his booze and his pot. There were others there. He was fine.
At age 20 Geoff attempted suicide. His life was a haze of drugs and alcohol.
He has, thankfully and courageously, been sober for 15 years. For the past ten years he has had sole custody of his son . He describes himself as an over-protective father. He worries about his boy, about his safety. He says it’s strange, but he was very aware that his worries were heightened when the boy was seven, the age Geoff was when he was sexually abused by a family friend, and again when the boy turned 16, the age Geoff was when Father Gillisse assaulted him. He wouldn’t allow the lad to attend a confirmation function with the bishop. Absolutely not. He just could not bring himself to let the boy attend.
He knows that this has been hard on his son.
By 2004 Geoff was long gone from Ottawa. He had just gone trough a difficult break-up.
Out of the blue, Father Gillissie called. Geoff recalled Gillissie repeating the refrains he had used on him so often as a child: “You’re my favourite”; “You know how special you are.” Then the priest began asking him repeatedly if he was homosexual. Father Gillissie wouldn’t stop. After several denials Geoff hung up the phone.
That was Geoff’s last contact with Father Gillissie.
Geoff talked of his long battle with depression. The years in and out of the hospital. The numerous attempts by doctors to control the depression with a vast array of medications.
In 2014 he was hospitalised yet again. A major bout of depression. Nothing was helping. Shock treatment was the last resort. It was during this particular hospitalization that he read Theo Fleury’s book Playing With Fire. It was during this hospitalization that a social worker referred him to a sexual assault centre. He recalls the feelings of guilt: the guilt he was feeling that others may have been sexually abused because of his silence.
In March 2015 he went to police.
In our conversations Betty Ann had made mention several times to a conversation she recalled having with her very angry mother. The exchange between mother and daughter transpired the day after the incident. Betty Ann mentioned it when we first spoke. She mentioned it in greater detail during a second conversation.
When Geoff talked about that evening and the following day, he made no mention of his grandmother. None.
Initially Geoff had no recollection of calling his grandmother. He recalled the incident. He recalled the terror. He has never forgotten. He never will.
Then he remembered. A little bit. He recalled that he had called his grandmother. He remembered that his grandmother wanted him to take a taxi to her apartment and she would meet him downstairs and pay for it. Still, his memory is that he was picked up by his Dad. In truth, what happened on the Sunday is, for Geoff, a bit fuzzy. He remembers what happened that Saturday night. THE night. He wil never forget.
Sunday, on the other hand, was significant to his mother.
Betty Ann has never forgotten what her mother had to say. She has never forgotten that dressing down. Never. She never will.
Geoff contacted police in March 2015.
The ensuing “investigation” lasted nearly two years.
He recalls that initially he had no idea what he wanted to do. He was seeking direction. He wanted police to know about and keep an eye on Gillissie. He was told that cases of historical sexual abuse are very difficult to prove in court. Somehow police believed that he had no interest in laying charges. He talked about his upset when he was told by his counsellor that police had talked to Father Gillissie and Gillissie had denied the allegations and had said that Geoff has mental problems and drinks. Yes, he heard it from his counsellor. According to Geoff, a police officer had called the counsellor. The officer told the counsellor. The counsellor in turn told Geoff. That’s how he found out. That’s how he found out that police had interviewed Father Gillissie, and that’s how he found out that Father Gillissie had essentially called him a drunken mental case.
To make a long story short, at some point Geoff told police that he did want charges laid. A year later it was all over. Charges would not be laid.
Yes, he was terribly disappointed when he was finally told in January of this this year (1917) that Ottawa police had decided there was insufficient evidence to lay charges.
As an interesting and disappointing aside, police did not contact Betty Ann. No. She was not contacted.
A shame. Mother’s remember .
Same event. Some different memories. Those of a mother. Those of a son.
THE RICHMOND PARISH HALL
Strange as it sounds, it was a parish hall which prompted Geoff to contact the archdiocese.
Actually, to be precise, it was news that the St. Philip Roman Catholic Church parish hall in Richmond, Ontario was to be named the Rev. Michael Gillissie Hall.
When Geoff first heard that the hall was to be named after Father Mike Gillissie he was upset. Very upset. He desperately tried to stop it from happening.
It was late 2016 when he tried to set up a meeting to talk to Ottawa’s Archbishop Terrence Prendergast. According to Geoff, the archbishop’s executive assistant Deacon Ouellette advised that if Geoff wanted to talk to the archbishop the room would be full of lawyers. Geoff was advised to get his lawyer to contact the archdiocese.
Geoff didn’t have a lawyer. That was the farthest thing from his mind. He just wanted to tell the Archbishop what had happened and why the church hall should not be named after Father Gillissie. That was it.
Betty Ann was, incidentally, with Geff when he made the call.
On 14 March 2017 Geoff angrily dashed off the following email (typos corrected) to the archdiocese and Father Robert Poole, the Pastor at St. Philip’s
Great to see how the Archdiocese of Ottawa contradicts itself regarding the support they say they offer survivors of sexual abuse. I reported Gillissie to the police in 2015 and tried to speak with Prendergast directly. I was told by Prendergast’s assistant that if I wanted to talk with him, there would be a room full of lawyers, great support for survivors. Gillissie shook my faith in the church and asked me “You don’t believe in all this God bull shit”.
I’ve asked numerous times that the parish hall at St. Phillips not be named after a pedophile. My requests obviously went unheard. I’ll be sure that the media is aware of this and how the church continues to support their paedophile priests.
Prendergast, you didn’t learn anything from the Ryan commission in Ireland. Keep brushing the issue under the table and keep protecting child molesters. Gillissie was up at St. Brigids camp when Keeler and Brennan were convicted. Why don’t you talk to victims and former camp counsellors at St. Brigids as I have.
The Catholic church will never change, that’s apparent with the archdiocese of Ottawa!!!!!
Honor a priest who sexually and spiritually abused children. Gillissie doesn’t even believe in God and tried to instill that belief into me.
God would be disgusted with the evil the catholic church continues to support!!!!!!
You didn’t want to talk to me in person, so I’ll let my lawyer handle it.
Yes, Geoff was upset. He was angry. He was frustrated. And, yes, he had by then retained a lawyer.
Father Gillissie died 21 March 2017. The funeral reception was held at the Rev. Michael Gillissie Parish Hall.
On 20 April 2017 I emailed Deacon Ouellette regarding the allegations against Father Gillissie and posed the following questions:
1. Does the Archbishop [Archbishop Prendergast]have any comment to make regarding the allegations and the naming of the Richmond parish hall in his honour?
2. Has the archdiocese received any other allegations of any form of sexual misconduct against Father Gillessie, either before or after his ordination?
3. Could someone please explain why when Mr. Ryan requested a meeting with Archbishop Prendergast he was told that if he wanted to talk to the archbishop there would be a room full of lawyers? and
4. A follow up to the above question, is it the norm for the Archbishop to have a group of lawyers present when he meets with a victim/complainant?
The response? 25 April 2017:
“The Archdiocese has no comment.”