Montreal shepherd says anti-abuse protocols based on simple idea: ‘It needs to stop’

Montreal shepherd says anti-abuse protocols based on simple idea: ‘It needs to stop’

Archbishop Christian Lepine of Montreal is pictured in a 2017 photo. (Credit: Francois Gloutnay/Presence via CNS.)

Earlier this month the Archdiocese of Montreal unveiled a new set of protocols being implemented quickly as the result of an independent investigation into a local abuse case that identified several holes in the system.

ROME – Earlier this month, the Archdiocese of Montreal unveiled a new set of protocols implemented as the result of an independent investigation into a local abuse case which identified several holes in the previous system.

According to the Archbishop of Montreal, Christian Lepine, one driving idea behind the reform is that “we need prevention, and good prevention.”

Abuse, Lepine told Crux, “Goes so much against Jesus, it goes so much against our Christian faith…People don’t want abuses, but they happen; people want to prevent them, but they happen; people want to listen to the victims, but they don’t hear them.”

While abuse might seem impossible to stop, Lepine said he believes that “where there’s a will, there’s a way. We need to want it to stop, [and] it needs to stop.”

Among other things, the new protocols include a revamped complaint process and the appointment of an independent ombudsman, a position that will be filled by lawyer and mental health expert Marie Christine Kirouack.

Under the new process, all clergy, staff, and volunteers within the Archdiocese of Montreal are required to report all information they have about a potential complaint to the ombudsman “without delay.”

Available 24/7, Kirouack is tasked with listening to complainants, asking relevant questions, and explaining how the process will proceed. If there is any indication of the physical or sexual abuse of a minor, the ombudsman is required to immediately inform the civil Department of Youth Protection.

Complaints will also be referred to a newly minted Advisory Committee comprised of five laypeople, one of whom is a clerical abuse survivor, led by a committee chair who participates in the process but cannot vote on course of action.

After studying the case, the Advisory Committee will submit its recommendations to the archbishop, whether it be support for the victim, the removal or defrocking of a priest, or an investigation into the allegations. If an investigation is recommended, it will be conducted by an independent, external party who will then report their findings to the Advisory Committee.

One novelty is that complaints regarding all forms of abuse will be received, whether sexual, physical, psychological, spiritual, or financial, and the age of the complainant will not be a factor in terms of receiving or evaluating allegations.

An awareness training program will also be launched sometime in the coming months ensuring that all clergy, staff, and volunteers within the archdiocese are aware of both the impact of abuse on victims, and the importance of staying vigilant.

The new protocol comes after a scandal the Archdiocese of Montreal with the case of ex-priest Brian Boucher, who was arrested in 2017, tried, and found guilty of sexually assaulting two underage boys.

These abuses happened during separate parish assignments, between 1995 and 1999 at one parish, and between 2008 and 2011 at another. At the close of his trial, Boucher in March 2019 was sentenced to eight years in prison.

In November of that year, Lepine ordered an independent inquiry be carried out into who knew what when in Boucher’s case, and he hired Honorable Judge Pepita Capriolo, who is Jewish, to conduct the investigation.

Capriolo submitted her findings, including 31 recommended action points, in the “Capriolo Report” to the archdiocese in January 2021, making the May 5 rollout of its new abuse reporting protocols, which include almost all of the report’s recommendations, remarkably fast compared to the slow pace at which ecclesial bureaucracy usually moves.

Speaking to Crux, Lepine said he ordered the investigation into the archdiocese’s actions in the Boucher case was because “when the whole process of criminal justice began, what we could see was that those abuses, those crimes, those sexual abuses against minors happened after the year 2000,” when the Catholic Church was already beginning to grapple with public fallout from clerical sexual abuse cases.

In 2002, after the Boston Globe exposed decades of abuse and coverup in the Catholic Church in the United States, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops issued their own national child protection policy known as the Dallas Charter, which among other things enforced a “zero tolerance” policy when it comes to clerical abuse, meaning just one credible allegation was enough to remove a priest from ministry.

“It wasn’t supposed to happen in 2000,” Lepine said. “So, for me, something happened that wasn’t supposed to happen, so how come it happened? Who knew what when? For me that became the question.”

In the course of her inquiry into Boucher’s case, Capriolo told Crux that what immediately stood out to her was the fact that there were many “lost opportunities to stop him in his tracks.”

“Right from the very beginning there were hints that his behavior was not normal or appropriate depending on the circumstances,” she said. “Right from 1995 there were people complaining about how he behaved with young people, his racism, his misogynism, etc.”

What was appalling for Capriolo was the fact that most of these early warning signs were “ignored,” which she said was largely due to the fear of “damaging the reputation” of a member of the clergy, as well as the fact that there was no clear protocol for how to handle abuse allegations at the time.

“What happened in those 35 years is that different people wrote or spoke to different members of the archdiocese, whether it was a cardinal, or a bishop, or the chancellor,” but with no one person clearly charged with dealing with those complaints, things fell through the cracks, minutes of conversations were not kept, documents disappeared, and there was a tendency to “medicalize” the problem.

Capriolo said she made her recommendations largely for the sake of “imputability.”

“People were not held responsible for what they were doing,” so it had to be made clear what the responsibilities were and who had those responsibilities; victims also needed a clear reference point for making complaints and staying informed about the process of their complaint; and a series of safety nets had to be established.

“Nothing is 100 percent safe, but I think we’ve set up enough mechanisms to be sure,” Capriolo said, adding, “one abuse may happen, but a second one won’t, because somebody is going to speak up, and there’s going to be a follow-up. We can’t prevent evil people from doing evil at all times, but we can certainly make it more difficult for them, and that’s the goal.”

Lepine said one conclusion from all this is that the Church needs help.

“In the Church we’re not equipped to do investigations. We’re not good at it,” he said. “We need people whose task it is, whose profession it is to investigate,” and that is what the new protocols are designed to ensure happens.

Asked what her evaluation was of the Archdiocese of Montreal’s implementation of her recommendations, Capriolo said she is “delighted” with the progress the archdiocese has made.

“I was worried when I handed in my report that people would freak out because it was not a happy report. I was overwhelmed that the archbishop agreed to implement all of the recommendations, and we’re doing it at a record speed,” she said, noting that the recommendations committee met for the first time Jan. 12.

Within minutes of the press conference announcing Kirouack as the ombudsman for the Archdiocese of Montreal, calls started to come in from recent and past victims, she said, adding, “We’re moving at a great speed.”

One major issue the Capriolo Report flagged and recommended including in the new educational program was clericalism, which Capriolo said was a new concept to her going into her investigation, but which was a clear factor in why Boucher got away with his misconduct for so long.

“It seemed quite clear to me that the awe that came with the position of being a priest protected Boucher,” she said. “It’s very hard to accuse somebody who is supposed to represent the divine, who’s supposed to be the intermediary between the divine and ourselves, as committing evil.”

Ultimately, Capriolo said this is why she insisted that warnings about clericalism be included in training and formational material.

As the leader of his archdiocese, Lepine said he believes fostering a spirit of service, which is what the priestly vocation is all about, can be a good “antidote,” but he also believes that making victim-survivors of abuse the priority is key.

“Jesus Christ already gave us that strength: the smallest, go to the smallest, meet me in the smallest; when you have problems and don’t know what to do, go to the smallest and you’ll find a way,” he said. “There are other dimensions, but the victims will lead you out of the problem, because you understand, and you hear, and you’ll know what you need to do.”

Lepine said he wanted the archdiocese’s new protocols to be completely victim-centered, and he believes that they have achieved that goal in their new system.

Not only is there one clear reference point for victims to talk to in the ombudsman, but there is also a victim-survivor on the archdiocesan recommendations committee, and there is another on the advisory committee, meaning their perspective is an integral part of the process.

“It centers on the victim, because by hearing their story, we learn what we need to do to prevent it,” Lepine said, insisting, “We need to hear the victims. We might think that they need someone to talk to, and that we do this so they can have someone to talk to. But we also need to hear them, otherwise we’ll go around in circles not knowing what to do. We need their story.”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen

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