Montreal archbishop apologizes after report faults failures to address priest’s misconduct

Marie Reine du Monde Montreal Mary, Queen of the World Cathedral in Montreal, Canada. / Thomas Ledl via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0).

The Montreal archdiocese repeatedly failed to act on complaints regarding a former priest's misbehavior until it was found he had likely engaged in sexual abuse of minors, says a new report. The Archbishop of Montreal has apologized to the victims, and welcomed the report's more than 30 recommendations "in humility and with a deep sense of regret."

"In name of the Catholic Church in Montreal and speaking for myself personally, I wish to say to the victims, to your loved ones and your parish communities how sorry we are that you experienced the effects of such terrible criminal acts, which should never occur, never," Archbishop Christian Lépine said when the 276-page report was released Nov. 25

The report concerns former diocesan priest Brian Boucher, who was ordained a priest in 1996 and worked in 10 Montreal churches as far back as the early 1980s. In January 2019 he was convicted of sexual assault of a minor in one case, and pleaded guilty to sexual assault of another minor. He was later sentenced to eight years in prison.

The Montreal archdiocese commissioned Pepita G. Capriolo, a retired Quebec Superior Court Justice, to investigate its handling of claims about Boucher and to make recommendations on how to improve.

"What struck me most was the passing of the buck," Capriolo said at a Nov. 25 news conference, CBC News reports. "The need to protect the reputation of Boucher seemed to be paramount."

The Montreal archdiocese had removed Boucher's priestly faculties in December 2015 after it learned of "alleged impropriety." A canonical trial began in October 2016, with Archbishop Lépine appointed as judge. This trial was suspended when criminal charges were filed in March 2017. After Boucher's conviction, the canonical process resumed. In March 2019, Lepine delivered his judgement: Boucher was removed from the clerical state.

For her investigation, Capriolo had independent access to hundreds of documents and interviewed everyone she deemed relevant, over 60 witnesses. Capriolo made 31 recommendations to help prevent abuse by improving responsibility, transparency, and accountability.

She blamed a "lack of accountability," saying "complaints were 'passed on' and no one took responsibility for acting on them."

Capriolo said that at times key documents were missing. Under Jean-Claude Cardinal Turcotte, who was Archbishop of Montreal from 1990 to 2012, shredding documents was "a well-known practice." She also faulted "a culture of secrecy, which reigned in the Church during the period covered by this investigation" for causing "the disappearance of important documents and the general lack of a paper trail."

Cardinal Marc Ouellet and the late Cardinal Turcotte were among those aware of some of Boucher's previous misconduct, the report said, according to CBC News.

Ouellet had served as rector of the seminary at the time Boucher was a seminarian.

"Until 2016, no one had come forward and claimed having been Boucher's victim of sexual abuse while still a minor," the report said. "No parent had ever brought such a charge against Boucher to the attention of his superiors. But this is no cause for premature exoneration of the Church authorities."

Capriolo's report found that he had a history of repeated complaints about his suitability dating back to his time in seminary. His behavior included rudeness, authoritarianism, and verbal and physical aggressiveness. He was observed "having a very close and worrisome relationship with a young boy at the end of the 1990s," but no investigation resulted from the complaint.

In a different incident, during a major 1998 ice storm, Boucher spent a night smoking cannabis and drinking alcohol with an 18-year-old student from Mexico, who fled from the rectory without his shoes after the priest made a sexual advance.

In 2003, the priest had an abusive relationship with a 19-year-old. The priest was sent to psychological treatment, but no disciplinary action was taken.

In 2011, when Boucher was up for reappointment as a pastor, a senior Church official wrote a detailed summary of his failings, so as to stop the appointment. "The official left on extended sick leave and Boucher was reappointed," said the report.

Boucher would later claim to be the victim of sexual abuse by a much younger priest, which resulted in a more thorough investigation in 2015 after he was discovered to be the perpetrator, not the victim. Then-Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Dowd conducted the investigation, which concluded there were "at least two child victims."

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Capriolo's recommendations include the creation of an external ombudsman role to investigate the conduct of priests at each stage of their career. Similarly, all complaints should be filed in one common register for the archdiocese. All clergy personnel files should be kept in one place, with "rigorous and systematic management" of the archdiocese's secret archives.

The archdiocese should create "a clear and well-defined organizational chart of accountability with delegated authority" that is accompanied by the power to sanction. All problems of abusive behavior, not only sexual abuse of minors, should be immediately referred to an advisory committee, Capriolo advised.

Legal and psychological support should be provided to victims, and there should be an annual external audit of how the report's recommendations are implemented.

Capriolo has agreed to co-chair an implementation committee with Archbishop Lepine, with other members to be announced. Implementation could finish by fall 2021.

"You have accomplished a difficult task, under difficult circumstances about a very difficult subject. We are indebted to you," Lepine told Capriolo. "We welcome the conclusions of your report in humility and with a deep sense of regret, and we commit ourselves to act decisively to deter such situations from occurring again."

Lepine said changes had already begun with the archdiocese's Responsible Pastoral Ministry Policy. He said people need to approach the Catholic Church with confidence and safety.

"The goal is not to point fingers but to uncover the gaps and deficiencies in our structures and policies, so that we can make the necessary changes," he said.

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The Montreal archdiocese released the Capriolo report on its website. In early 2021, a statistical audit of diocesan files dating back to 1940 will begin. It aims to compile allegations of sexual abuse of minors by clerics.