Analysis | Pope Francis Faces Credibility Test Amid Accusations Against Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet

MONTREAL—“Where there is difficulty, we must meet it, especially if a bishop is involved.”

These wordsuttered by Cardinal Marc Ouellet in 2019 following the publication of new Vatican rules for handling sexual abuse cases, could smother the man if told today.

At the very least, they should arrest the Canadian who was considered a contender in the last papal conclave now that troubling accusations against him of sexual misconduct have been made public.

And the Roman Catholic Church should pause the top cardinal’s illustrious career for the time it takes to fully assess and adjudicate claims, by a former intern in the Diocese of Quebec, of inappropriate touching: an unwanted shoulder massage , hugs and touching the buttocks of the claimant.

The need for such a pause is, at least, the opinion of Mark McGowan, a historian at the University of Toronto who has watched the Catholic Church in Canada and around the world grapple with the scourge of clergy abuse.

“If he is exonerated, then he could go back to his post,” McGowan said. “But I think even at this point, with the hint of this kind of scandal, and given his age (78), I think he’s probably done and really, in good conscience, he should resign.”

How the Vatican handles the accusations against Ouellet will send a deafening message from the highest levels of the institution, one that could either bolster Pope Francis’s credibility on clergy abuse or undermine it.

“Oh, how the mighty have fallen!” proclaims the Old Testament verse that risks ringing true all these years later, even if the accusations against Ouellet are recent history.

The complaint filed with church officials with the Diocese of Quebec in late 2020 concerned events that allegedly occurred more than a decade earlier and ended with Ouellet being called to Rome by Pope Benedict XVI to take a place in the ranks. highest in the church hierarchy.

The Quebecois now serves as prefect of the Congregation of Bishops, a job that has him advising Pope Francis on the selection of new bishops.

Think of him as the Vatican’s executive headhunter, a position that still gets him a weekly audience with the boss, even though Francis ordered a Vatican investigation into Ouellet’s alleged conduct when he was brought to his attention in early 2021. according to the statement of claim, to which no reply brief has yet been submitted.

That the pope can continue to consult and place his trust in someone he surely knows is the subject of a complaint is curious and leaves Francis open to criticism on a subject he cannot afford to ignore.

Until now, Rome has remained silent, but now it finds itself vulnerable to trial before the public for giving special treatment to one of the “princes” of the church, as cardinals are known.

Particularly when Ouellet is compared to the Quebec priest accused in the same class action suit of having repeatedly sexually assaulted the same woman who made the claims against Ouellet, albeit several years later.

In April of this year, Father Léopold Manirabarusha was suddenly removed from his ministry in the Quebec City area, and in an inelegant manner. cropped publicity photo for a church fundraiser, due to complaints of “inappropriate behavior” received by the diocese.

A spokeswoman, Valérie Roberge-Dion, said Presencea French-language publication in Quebec that specializes in religious coverage, that Manirabarusha’s suspension was standard protocol when it comes to accusations of impropriety.

“It is the balance that we have found between ensuring a thorough follow-up of serious allegations and respecting the person in question, who must be presumed innocent under Quebec law,” he said.

Roberge-Dion did not say what the specific allegations against Manirabarusha were.

But now we know, thanks to a detailed list obtained by the Star, that in addition to Ouellet’s inappropriate contact, the plaintiff said that the priest, who is originally from Burundi, forced her to perform acts of masturbation, oral sex and penetration, incidents that occurred in churches, hotels and in the victim’s home.

The claims from a total of 131 victims on that six-page list are against dozens of men who are alleged to have committed horrific violations of vulnerable people under their charge or under their influence.

A pre-teenage girl raped in the church sacristy in the 1950s; an abbot who masturbates his teenage victim in the backseat of a car while the church janitor drives it; a horrified 12-year-old boy whose first sexual contact ended with the idea that the priest who slid into his bed and took off his clothes had urinated on his stomach.

And there is more to come. After hearing the claims against Ouellet, attorney Justin Wee, who is leading the class action lawsuit, said a dozen other people have come forward with their own stories of abuse against other church officials.

The accusations against clergymen have affected the credibility of the church in Canada and around the world, causing a spiritual abyss, financial difficulties and an uncertain future for local dioceses.

In Canada, we have the widespread sexual abuse of orphaned children in the 1970s at the Mount Cashel orphanage in Newfoundland and Labrador, crimes that were covered up by the church, the police, the courts, and the government for years.

We have the $15 million settlement of a 2012 lawsuit that paid cash to 125 victims of priests in Antigonish, NS, a case that only came about because of a sexual assault victim’s allegations written in a 2002 suicide note. .

That was quickly followed by the September 2012 arrest and subsequent conviction of Bishop Raymond Lahey, the man who announced the Antigonish deal, after border officials in Ottawa discovered child pornography on his laptop after a trip abroad. .

And we have the tragedy of Canada’s residential school system and the abuses committed against defenseless indigenous children by Catholics and Protestants alike.

“One of the things that the (Canadian Catholic) Church has learned from Mount Cashel, from Antigonish and from Ottawa is that they have to act responsibly and quickly in these cases, and they have to put the victim first,” McGowan said.

“Historically, because it would give the church a scandal, there was a time when the clergy would close ranks and then just move a man. That is never going to be done again, at least not in Canada.”

In Rome, too, Pope Francis has taken a tougher public line on clergy sexual abuse cases, particularly compared to John Paul II and Benedict XVI, his predecessors.

But he had the wrong reaction and cast doubt on the plaintiffs when he faced widespread allegations of abuse in Chile in 2018 and initially rejected allegations that Bishop Juan Barros, a man he knew personally, was involved in covering up the crimes. from the 1980s.

When the accusations were confirmed, Francis apologized and attacked the problem with the zeal of a convert.

The result was a 2019 papal edictknown as “motu proprio”, which establishes rules for the reporting and investigation of sexual abuse and cover-ups of such crimes within the church.

Necessary, Francis wrote, because “crimes of sexual abuse offend Our Lord, cause physical, psychological and spiritual damage to the victims and harm the community of the faithful.”

Francis approved the new rules, and Cardinal Ouellet went about preaching their qualities to the public, including in a 2019 interview with Vatican News, the church-run publication.

Ouellet himself pointed out that a key part of Francis’ plan was an expanded definition of sexual misconduct to include “forcing someone, by violence or threat or abuse of authority, to perform or submit to sexual acts.”

“We know that thank God almost all the bishops … are men who seek to follow the example of Jesus Christ in daily life of bearing witness to his Gospel,” Ouellet told his interviewer.

Seeking inspiration from a higher power is the path of all religions.

But seeking refuge from superiors from accusations of sexual misconduct has a long history in the Catholic Church.

Will the Pope cover Ouellet’s back? Will Canada’s top cardinal keep the trappings of church power? Or is he facing an infamously imminent end to his career?

“It will be entirely up to Francis if he stays,” McGowan said, comparing Ouellet’s case to that of former Q107 host Jon Derringer, who was taken off the air as the Toronto radio station investigated claims of workplace abuse and harassment. .

“If a DJ has to resign due to accusations of bullying, a Cardinal should certainly do the right thing until the air is cleared either way. It is the most honorable thing to do.”


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