Montreal (National Post) – Invoking past sexual abuse scandals and the need to create a “healthy and safe environment” in its churches, the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Montreal has announced new guidelines to ensure priests and lay workers are never alone with children.
“Recent events have brought to light the horrific reality of abuse of minors and vulnerable persons by members of the Church,” Christian Lépine, archbishop of Montreal, wrote in a message to the faithful dated Wednesday.
“These intolerable situations have shocked and shaken the Universal Church as well as the entire population to whom we wish to proclaim the Good News of Christ.”
A pilot project to begin this fall in 10 parishes and eventually extend to all 194 in Montreal will prohibit priests, staff and volunteers from being alone with minors. Following the lead of other organizations like amateur sport associations and the Scouts, the archdiocese will institute police screening of new hires and volunteers working with children or the vulnerable.
François Sarrazin, chancellor of the archdiocese, said the measures are intended to send a message.
“People who work in churches, if they hope to hide to commit acts of pedophilia, these people have no place in the service of the church,” he said.
The archdiocese is drawing on similar projects in Ontario and New Brunswick, he said.
In Bathurst, N.B., for example, the 2015 diocesan policy for responsible pastoral ministries states: “Members of the clergy, pastoral agents, employees or volunteers must avoid being alone in a closed area with a minor, unless there is another screened adult or the minor’s parents/guardians close by.”
It is a far cry from the days when Sarrazin, 67, was a boy entering the confessional booth with his heart beating and the priest on other side of the screen. These days, he said, when priests meet children, it may be out of earshot but it is always in full view of another adult.
“Simple human prudence dictates that you don’t remain alone with a child,” Sarrazin said.
In an interview with the Journal de Montréal, the archbishop called sexual abuse that occurred within the church “an unspeakable tragedy,” but said the institution has evolved.
“At one time, it was thought that (pedophilia) did not exist,” he said. “At another, it was thought to be curable, and priests were given a therapy session before being sent back to their ministry. Today, we know it exists, and we have to act.”
For Sébastien Richard, spokesman for a Quebec association of victims abused by priests, the new measures announced by the archdiocese are worthy, but they arrive too late.
With church attendance in steep decline, priests are an endangered species, he said. The potential for abuse is reduced simply by their dwindling numbers and by the fact they are no longer teaching in schools.
If the archbishop truly believes in addressing the “unspeakable tragedy” of past abuse, the church should stop invoking prescription – that too much time has passed since alleged events occurred — when facing civil suits from abuse victims, Richard said.
“Right now, there are hundreds, even thousands of victims of childhood sexual abuse, committed by priests and clergy, who are denied justice because the Catholic Church insists on invoking prescription so as to not have to compensate the victims,” he said.