After two priests from the Diocese of Rupert’s Land were charged with sexual offences that dated back to the 1960s, Bishop Patrick Lee did two things: he held a press conference, and he wrote a pastoral letter to the diocese which was read aloud at every parish. Among other things, the letter invited those who had been abused to come forward, not just to the police, but to the diocese.
“Several people have come forward since the letter,” says Bishop Lee.
“Some have spent some time in my office. Many people have never talked about it. I have found that those conversations have been very open.”
Not so many years ago the diocese might have tried to keep the situation quiet. “I think we’re breaking new ground,” says Bishop Lee. In the past, “I think everybody, not just the church, but other institutions, schools, sports teams, worked very hard to push (abuse) under the carpet as if it was an incident that wasn’t nice but not of great importance.
“I think we’re seeing now that it has a terrible effect.”
The parish of St. Bede’s has felt that effect more than most. In 1986 their rector was convicted of offences against a parishioner. “The diocese was not transparent, not forthcoming, and many people were angry with the institution rather than the individual,” says the current rector, Rev. Jamie Howison.
A significant number of people left the parish and were given little help in dealing with their pain. At the time, there was “not the permission to put it all out on the table and deal with it,” says Mr. Howison. In 1996, Mr. Howison , who wasn’t yet the parish priest, and a social worker were asked to help the congregation do a 10-years-after debriefing. At that time people were finally able to process their feelings.
But when more charges against the former rector were laid this spring, the parish had to face the issue all over again. For some people, the new charges “undermine everything they thought they knew about” the rector.
“It’s been a real death experience for them,” says Mr. Howison , adding, “I’ve encouraged them to see it like that.”
Mr. Howison is optimistic that this time the parish will be able to pull through. “There’s lots of pain, lots of confusion, lots of sadness, but the feeling (that) not only can we survive this, but we can come out of this resurrected.”
Bishop Lee says the diocese has received much support in dealing with the situation. “The parishes have responded to this exceptionally well,” he says. People in the diocese have sent letters, faxes, flowers and chocolates, “just saying ?we’re with you.'”
The bishop has also received “incredible” response from the ecumenical community. Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Lutheran bishops have all shown their support. “That’s been very heartening.”
Other parish priests have also expressed appreciation for the way Bishop Lee is leading the pro-cess. The pastoral letter “was such a courageous and appropriate decision on the part of our bishop,” says Rev. Donna Ball of St. Alban’s, “because it brought it out into the open, which, under the circumstances, was the only way it should be.”
The letter showed “no sense of defensiveness or cover-up,” adds Rev. Murray Henderson of St. Aidan’s. “It placed the main concern on the victims.” The letter has also resulted in people contacting individual priests, including Mr. Henderson, to talk about their personal experiences.
The diocese’s openness was helpful to the police, says Constable Bob Johnson, media liaison officer for the Winnipeg Police. “From our point of view, I think they’ve been extremely co-operative. They’ve done everything they can to make sure we have all the information we need. I think they’ve gone out of their way to notify the rest of the membership of the church,” he adds, “and encouraging people to come forward.”
The process of dealing with charges and stories has not been easy for the diocese. “We have all found it very draining,” says Bishop Lee. “The staff here have been quite deeply affected by it.” A therapist has visited the diocesan office to do post-trauma counselling. “It was good just to be able to talk about it,” says Bishop Lee.
Debra Fieguth lives in Winnepeg and is associate editor of ChristianWeek.