Parishioners want acquitted priest back

Published December 1, 1999

A Nova Scotia priest acquitted of sexually assaulting a girl in his parish says he doesn’t feel victimized by the system.

“The Crown opted to err on the side of caution,” Charles Bull said in an interview days after the verdict. “The police did what I think they had to do. They can’t show a lot of discretion. I really don’t fault them.

“It really wasn’t that long ago, 10, 15 years even, when a child could disclose the most horrific things and there was the blanket denial. The whole institution was complicit, every institution. That is so recent, so I take the big view through the whole thing.”

Mr. Bull was alleged on a single occasion to have touched a girl’s crotch outside her clothing during a game of hide-and-seek. The judge concluded unequivocally on Oct. 18 ? about eight months after the charge was laid ? that no improper touching took place.

Mr. Bull hasn’t worked in his five-point parish of Lockeport and Barrington since the charge was laid. A neighbouring priest has overseen the parish since then.

The diocese must now evaluate the evidence against its sexual misconduct policy, before any decision can be made about Mr. Bull’s future, Archbishop Arthur Peters says.

But some parishioners say his congregations are missing him dreadfully.

“He’s a very caring and compassionate priest and everyone is missing him,” said Arieta MacKay of Lockeport. Seniors in nursing homes keep asking after him, enquiring when he’ll be back, she said.

“Whenever anything goes wrong, we still call Charles,” Miss MacKay said. “He’s not allowed to act as a priest. But as far as we’re concerned, he’s still Father Charles.”

She and her sister, Amy France, called the Journal, concerned that the brief story that ran in last month’s Journal about Mr. Bull’s acquittal might have left the false impression that he was guilty of an offence but managed to get off.

Mrs. France said Mr. Bull and his family were very supportive when her husband, Rev. George France, died, interrupting their vacation for a few days to be with her.

“I know the great comfort he has been to others who went through periods of death or illness,” she said.

Mr. Bull talked in the interview about the paid leave from his duties as rector as being difficult but also full of blessings.

“It’s been a very stressful time, partly because it was a long time, and just to have the threat of career and livelihood being removed,” he said. “It’s also stressful to have to walk around having people wonder about my own moral integrity.

While he wasn’t happy initially to have to cease functioning as rector, in the end he said he was thankful for the time to focus, and he understood why the diocese had to take that position. The leave of absence with pay gave him time to read and pray, he said.

“For the first little while I think it was 24-hour prayer. I really learned for the first time the power of the 23rd Psalm.”

Mr. Bull was also grateful to spend extra time with his wife and family of three children. He bought a computer and took up guitar for the first time. He said he has emerged from the ordeal with a stronger faith life and marriage.

“The kids are obviously relieved” at the verdict, he said. “It’s a very small community. It’s a town on an island that’s about 700 people. So everyone knows everything.”

His children were not in the same class as the girl who made the allegation last year and the school made sure they were not together again this year.

The community has been very supportive, Mr. Bull said.

“That’s been the life saver. The community has been 99 per cent tremendously supportive. Every car that drives by toots their horn or waves.” He said neither he nor his wife Michelle have ever experienced being loved by so many people.

“I’ve got five churches. One’s a small church and four are what I call micro-churches. They also have been tremendously supportive and it’s kind of humbling for me to have so many people praying for me both locally and in far away places.”

Archbishop Peters said that because the complaint went directly to the police, the diocese was unable to implement its sexual misconduct protocol until the verdict was in.

“We’re certainly pleased he was acquitted,” Archbishop Peters said during an interview at a national House of Bishops meeting in Mississagua, Ont. “We are now back at the beginning. We have to assess the information, see if there was a breach of professional conduct.”

He hopes a decision can be made quickly.

“We want in an unequivocal way to make a statement so there are no lingering shadows.”

The investigation of the incident will likely be turned over to an independent clinician for an objective review. That person will report to the sexual misconduct advisory committee of the diocese, which is comprised of professionals in the field, including the head of the local Children’s Aid Society, a social worker, a registered nurse and a child psychologist.

Depending on the results of these kinds of investigations, the diocese can respond in a variety of ways, including suggesting continuing education or training as a way of understanding boundaries clearly.

“Ultimately we look for full assurance the priest is not going to find himself in circumstances that could be read as inappropriate or could lead to inappropriate behaviour,” said the diocese’s suffragan Bishop Fred Hiltz.

“The goal continually is to create in the church and the diocese a safe place for all people,” Archbishop Peters added.

That safe place may look a little different today for many reasons. While a priest might once have hugged or otherwise shown affection for a parishioner without worrying how it might be interpreted, that’s no longer the case.

“It requires great sensitivity on the part of clergy,” Archbishop Peters said. “The patterns of behaviour that might have been tolerated five, 10, 20 years ago; one needs to have a sober second thought ? it really affects the way clergy engage in their ministry.”

Mr. Bull said his experience will change the way he interacts with children. “I’ll probably feel cautious around being with children, always more cautious and more aware. I think there’s going to be a carefulness.”

Meanwhile, he hopes he will be allowed to remain in the parish he’s been at since June 1994.

“We really love it here and we’d like to stay at least two more years, just to have some sense of closure for the church and for ourselves and for the community. We’re very contented here and very happy.”

His parishioners absolutely want him to stay, Mrs. France said.

“We love him. I don’t think we would love a person who sexually abused a person.”


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