Canada’s Bishops, Clerical Sexual Abuse and the Future
In Fall 2018, about half a year before the summit on clerical sexual abuse called by Pope Francis (February 21-24, 2019), the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops published a comprehensive document called Protecting Minors from Sexual Abuse: A Call to the Catholic Faithful in Canada for Healing, Reconciliation, and Transformation (PMSA).
Some senior Church officials outside Canada hold it to be possibly the best such official episcopal publication anywhere. The document certainly tries to do a lot—it contains 69 recommendations for the guidance of bishops and equivalent Church leaders in Canada.
This essay considers PMSA from four angles: What does it say? How good is it? What good will it do? How should lay people approach it? But first, it’s important to be clear about the nature of the document.
Two factors are critical. First, each bishop is the leader of his diocese; the buck stops at his desk. (Bishops and dioceses is shorthand; PMSA is also for the orders and congregations and their major superiors and for the eparchs and eparchies of the Eastern Catholic Church in Canada.) So real improvement in this area cannot happen without the bishops.
Second, each bishop serves at the pleasure of the Pope; he is not subordinate in his exercise of authority to any other Church official or group in Canada. Under limited conditions, the CCCB can legislate for all dioceses, but in this case it has issued strong advice—the phrase “Bishops and major superiors will endeavour” heads all the recommendations—not marching orders.
The Preface by the CCCB President at the time, Bishop Gendron, calls PMSA a “resource”. It translates more as Bishop, you ought to than as Thou shalt.
So, what does PMSA actually say? It’s about rendering justice, acting compassionately, and making proper amends for abuse that has already happened; about dealing properly with any abuse that occurs in the future; and, vitally, about preventing future occurrences.
Part I begins with nine sets of “lessons learned” from experience. Each set ends with recommendations for what Canada’s bishops “will endeavour” to do. The recommendations are the key component of PMSA—they are the call to action.
Part I also includes a chapter, “Healing of Individuals and Communities”, on the many dimensions of injury (psychological, spiritual, family, parish etc.) that make it essential to act. Another chapter, “The Road Ahead”, is about the understanding, attitudes and framework needed for improvement—not just about correcting relationships with minors and vulnerable people, but also about creating a fundamentally new manner of being the Church.
Some parts are obvious, such as obey the law, while many are more visionary and aspirational because of their focus on transparency, accountability and conversion.
In addition, there’s a quite stirring Foreword by Bishop Fabbro of London, an extensive list of resources and a bishop’s checklist on what to tell the Vatican about a confirmed offender.
A legal-language comparison between Canadian law and the Church’s “Canonical Provisions” (for instance, the Vatican and Canada set different ages of “minor” with respect to pornography) confirms that PMSA is consistent with Rome’s rules for all dioceses; its provisions are binding on bishops given their obligation to follow both Canon Law and Canadian laws.
But the centrepiece is the lessons-learned. They need to be relevant, honest, intelligent and comprehensive. Here, in my words, is what the recommendations cover:
- Being pastoral not legalistic: how Church leaders should meet with victims rather than be aloof.
- Understanding the phenomenon of sexual abuse properly: why offenders offend, and the nature of the consequences for the victims.
- Responding properly when an allegation is made.
- Dealing properly with offenders.
- Better safeguarding measures so abuse never happens again, including proper training for everyone acting on behalf of the Church who has contact with minors and vulnerable people.
- The effects of the scandal on those in religious life and on the laity; coping with shame.
- Better initial and ongoing education of clergy.
- Formal legal proceedings versus mediation in relation to reconciliation.
- Recovering credibility and achieving authenticity through real action.
How good is PMSA? In my opinion (and I’m not a specialist in the topic), the major strengths of PMSA are that it was written and published at all, and that it appears to be comprehensive in the range of issues included. Furthermore, the recommendations are a real tool for accountability.
Laypeople can go to a bishop and ask “What’s the state of progress on Recommendation X in our diocese? If you have ignored X to date, despite it being the best thinking of the collectivity of Canadian bishops, what’s your justification?”
Finally, it provides a baseline. From here, one can say This should be added or modified. And with PMSA as a benchmark, one can say This should be applauded, for instance Montréal’s Auxiliary Bishop Dowd whose personal pursuit of truth was instrumental in the conviction of an abuser priest last year.
As for weaknesses, I’m disappointed by the tone and style of this document. Other than the Foreword, the text is predominantly dry and super-cautious. That may be fine for a text by bishops for bishops, but it’s out there for everyone to read. Would that its voice were consistently contrite, humble, honest, wise and impassioned.
I feel ambivalent about the constant repetition of the phrase “lessons learned.” This frames bishops as willing learners. Perhaps they are now, but it was their resistance and cover-up, not learning, that turned individual sins into a systemic crisis.
(I side with some observers who say that things did not change from within but because victims became proactive in collaboration with media, and the secular justice system stopped treating the Church deferentially.) On the other hand, hearing the bishops say collectively We’re learners suggests that things are moving in the right direction.
I find the text very nervous about the obvious fundamental questions: first, how could rank-and-file individuals in religious life licence themselves to behave so horribly towards children and vulnerable people; second, how could those in positions of senior authority have thought they were doing good while mishandling the situation so miserably.
Until these questions are shouted out, the bishops will lack credibility. If I had been a drafter, I would have agreed that these huge topics are out of scope for PMSA, but I certainly would have acknowledged that it’s the elephant in the room.
What good will PMSA do? Recommendations are mere words until they turn into action. At the diocesan level, the laity should get involved. Fortunately, some recommendations call for laypersons to take on various roles alongside ordained individuals.
What can we do as laypeople to help those who have been seriously hurt in the past? And what must we do to prevent future abuse? Lay voices must ask what is already in place and must help to identify what needs to be improved—first, in order to expose, investigate and bring healing to instances of past abuse; second, in order to create appropriate structures and processes to prevent future abuse.
An initial practical step, I suggest, would be to conduct facilitated discussion sessions of PMSA at the parish or diocesan level. I have developed a workshop outline for this that I will gladly share with anyone who is interested.
At the national level, the CCCB has established a Standing Committee for Responsible Ministry and the Protection of Minors and Vulnerable Adults, a 16-member task force that includes lay participants, to advise it in this area.
PMSA concludes with calls for renewal and transformation in the Church. Well said. This is a major theme of Pope Francis. Coupled with his wish to decrease clericalism, this renewal demands full-blooded lay participation.
As recent synods have shown, the Church is better able to learn and evolve positively with a wider range of members in the room. Conversely, clerics alone are unlikely to fully understand and eliminate conditions that can tempt some of their number to abuse and lead others into handling abuse situations improperly. It’s high time for transparency, enfranchisement of the laity, and transformative collaboration within the People of God.
A Note from the author: Several authoritative readers. Including Archbishop Durocher, who is a member of the CCCB follow-up group on this topic, and Bishop Dowd (mentioned in the article ) have seen and commented on the draft, allowing me to make small adjustments.