Thursday, January 31, 2008

Alleged victims accuse priests of sexual abuse

Father Rene Hebert was a priest at L’Annonciation parish in Sudbury and enjoyed working with the youth, so much so that he took the boys on camping trips.

But these trips weren’t about singing around the campfire and honing the boys’ outdoors skills. Hebert fed the boys alcohol and took advantage of their innocence.

R. D. Sabourin was a victim of the priest’s deviance. Fifteen at the time of the sexual abuse, Sabourin walked roughly a dozen miles out of the bush one night to get away from a man he trusted, to inform his parents.

A meeting was held with the Bishop, assurances were given and prayers were encouraged, but nothing ended up happening to Father Hebert.

“My parents were told to go to church, pray, and forget it ever happened,” Sabourin said, his eyes brimming with tears as he recounted the incident.

Now, 36 years later, after struggling to move forward while putting his past behind him, Sabourin is married with three children of his own. It’s his children who have brought the abuse victim to speak out about his abuse.

“I’m worried about my children,” he said. “I want to make sure our children, my nieces and nephews, are safe.”

Sabourin was one of seven people gathered at a press conference Monday at the Radisson Hotel in Sudbury to announce seven civil lawsuits against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sault Ste. Marie, the Roman Catholic Diocese of London and the Congregation of the Resurrection in Ontario. The lawsuits named six priests – Hebert, Magnus J. Fedy, Victor Killoran, Gerald Roy, Lawrence Paquette and John Fisher – on allegations of sexual misconduct. Roy is the only priest still alive.

Half of the men have been criminally charged or convicted in the past, according to Thomas Talach, litigation lawyer from the Ledroit Beckett law firm in London, Ont.

“We are here today to expose the crimes of... six priests...who have violated the very essence of what they represented,” Talach said in his opening statement. “It is their own victims who, following decades of struggling with the impact of that evil, have found the strength to come here today to set the record straight.”

Talach said the reasons for the press conference were to empower the victims, to reach out to other victims, and to create positive change for the future.

The lawyer explained why the allegations had just been brought to light, so long after the incidents took place.

“Many times the victim, taught from an early age that a priest and the church can do no wrong, blames themselves for the abuse. They cannot tell their parents for they feel it is more likely the charming and loved priest will be believed over a child. If believed... the news of abuse... can shake and even shatter an entire family’s religious faith... which leads a victim to vow they will take their secret to the grave. It takes decades for that secret to finally surface.”

The claim for each case is approximately $4.5 million. However, Talach said that is not reflective of what the individual will receive. “No amount of money can compensate someone for the loss of their innocence, their youth and their religious belief,” the lawyer said.

Though the accused priests were all Roman Catholic, Talach said it should not be mistaken as an attack on the religion.

“In these cases, we’ve had brave and honourable priests come forward to assist,” he said. “But we want this diocese (the Diocese of Sault Ste. Marie) to deal with it. It is not acceptable to transfer the priest, it is not acceptable to bury their pasts and it is not acceptable to leave them in the field.”

Bishop Jean-Louis Plouffe, a bishop for 21 years at of the Diocese, admitted the allegations caused him a great deal of concern.

“I want people to trust their priests,” he said. “These are things (I’d) rather not have to deal with, however, they’re there and (I) have to look at it very carefully, especially with the priests being dead, (I) have to make sure all light is shed on this so (I’m) able to assess it.”

The Bishop said once more information is available about the claims, the Diocese will be able to chart the proper course of action.

To avoid further situations like this from happening, the Bishop explained the Diocese has invested a great deal into training and sabbaticals for their priests.

“Sabbaticals allow the priests to grow as humans and to become better integrated pastors. We’ve had workshops to help them understand... the proper professional behaviours and also the limitations in carrying out their ministry.”

As for Sabourin, the events of his childhood have continued to shape his adult life. Though he admitted he doesn’t often attend church anymore, he still has his faith in God.

He raised his three children as Catholic and though they all have their first communion, none have confirmation.
“My children were raised Catholic to a time one of them was told he had to do community service at his church for his confirmation and that was it, I stopped it there,” he said.

When the abuse took place, Sabourin faced an added hurdle to overcome – his father was related to Father Hebert.
“I was more embarrassed to tell my parents,” he said. “I told my dad a long time ago something happened but I told my dad what really happened (about) two weeks ago.”
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