Priest sex abuse: before Boston, there was Newfoundland


November, 2015

It was a bombshell.

A well-known local paper printing a front-page exposé on sexual abuse by Catholic religious figures in an overwhelmingly Catholic region of the country. Not only did the story expose malfeasance on the part of the Roman Catholic Church, but also on the part of many local officials who had not only known about the abuse but had helped covered it up.

No, I’m not talking about the Boston Globe, and its 2002 series on sexual abuse that won a Pulitzer Prize and is also the subject of the much-praised film released November 6, “Spotlight.” That happened almost a decade after the story I’m referring to.

The newspaper I’m talking about is the St. John’s Sunday Express in St. John’s, Newfoundland. And the exposé concerned a group known as the Christian Brothers who ran an orphanage in the province that was so riddled with sexual abuse, as we came to know, that once exposed it staggered the entire province, then the entire country.

Before I tell you the rest of the story, I have two points to make.

Hollywood loves to pump up the achievements of any American, so that it seems like no one else in the rest of the world could have possibly been involved in any similar endeavour. Canadians are already familiar with this strategy, watching the predominantly Canadian role in the rescue of six Iranian hostages from Tehran in 1980 reduced to a bit part supporting the Ben Affleck–hero who pulled the whole thing off.

The second point is more of a personal one. While I am an atheist now, I was raised as a Catholic, and I am from Newfoundland. While I did not spend many years there, I have many relatives from my father’s side of the family still living there. One of my lasting memories from a visit in the early 80’s is of four priests sitting around my Aunt Marge’s dinner table while she waited on them hand and foot. And she felt honoured to do so, so profound was the admiration for the Catholic Church in Newfoundland.

The Irish Christian Brothers weren’t clergy, but a lay order that took vows of celibacy and wore religious habits. They had established the Mount Cashel Orphanage in 1876 and were much respected on the island. But allegations of abuse about the Brothers started to surface in the mid-70s. An investigation by the province’s social service department, that included suggestions that abuse was taking place, was forwarded to the orphanage’s superintendent, and then forgotten about. Further investigations by the police in the following decade were silenced by superiors. The main newspaper in Newfoundland, the Evening Telegram, came close to printing a story in 1976, but it was quashed by its publisher.

Over the following decade, the sexual abuse was almost revealed several times, but was always either pushed under the rug or ignored. But then allegations of abuse against Catholic priests nationally were starting to attract attention. On the evening of February 13, 1989, so the story goes according to an article on the Heritage Newfoundland website, a caller to local radio station VOCM’s popular Open Line program alleged the authorities had covered up the Mount Cashel abuse.

Then on March 19th the Sunday Express printed the story of Shane Earl, a former Mount Cashel resident. And, as they say, all hell broke loose. In September of 1989, an inquiry led by retired Ontario Supreme Court Judge Samuel Hughes was opened.

As Sunday Express editor Michael Harris later wrote in his book on Mount Cashel, “Unholy Orders”: “By the time the Hughes Inquiry had finished its somber deliberations on Mount Cashel, it had laid bare a stunning, collective failure of the judicial, police, religious, media and social service establishments to protect the interests of hopelessly vulnerable and cruelly abused children.”

The Mount Cashel debacle turned out to be the tip of the iceberg for the Catholic Church in Canada. Other Christian Brother institutions across the country, particularly in Saskatchewan and Ontario, faced allegations that ultimately forced the order’s leaders in Rome to transfer its assets out of Canada because it was being forced to pay so many victims. Meanwhile new allegations of abuse against native Canadians by Catholic clergy also began to surface. This time the allegations weren’t against the Catholic Church alone, but also included many mainline Protestant churches.

But, the way the world works, nothing really happens until it happens in the United States.

Allegations of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy and lay orders can now be found in countries around the globe. Benedict 16th, when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger, played a key role in helping to keep the abuse scandal as quiet as possible.

A final word about the Sunday Express. It was a kick-ass paper doomed to failure because it was kick-ass. It exposed many scandals on the part of the Newfoundland government, and the powers-that-be in the province did not take kindly to being held to task, withdrew advertising and the paper was forced to close in 1990.

Because the truth is that government is not interested in freedom of the press. Government is interested in compliant media, which is most of what Canada now has, particularly in print media.

Michael Harris has not stopped ruffling feathers. He continues to be one of Canada’s best journalists. You can read his most recent works at the Canadian online website, where he continues to hold politicians feet to the fire.

As for the Catholic Church, be it in Newfoundland, or Boston, or Ireland, or Australia, or Norway or Poland, the revelations of abuse and their aftershocks continue to roil that institution. One hopes that Pope Francis, who seems to offer so much inspiration to so many people on so many fronts, can deal with the issue in a decisive way.

But this is the Catholic Church. Don’t keep your fingers crossed.

Copyright Tom Regan 2015

Contact Tom Regan:


Catholic Church sexual abuse cases:

Mount Cashel Orphanage Abuse Scandal:

Unholy Orders: tragedy at Mount Cashel:

Michael Harris columns at iPolitics:

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The cast of the film "Spotlight" react after they won the Oscar for Best Picture at the 88th Academy Awards in Hollywood, California February 28, 2016.    REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni
The cast of the film “Spotlight” react after they won the Oscar for Best Picture at the 88th Academy Awards in Hollywood, California February 28, 2016. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

‘Spotlight’ wins top Oscar amid race-related critiques.By Jill Serjeant, Reuters

Catholic Church abuse movie “Spotlight” was named best picture, the top award at Sunday’s Oscar ceremony, after an evening peppered with pointed punchlines from host Chris Rock about the #OscarsSoWhite controversy that has dominated the industry.

‘Spotlight’ Gets Investigative Journalism Right. By Stephen Engelberg, ProPublica

“Spotlight,” the film based on the Boston Globe’s investigation of the Catholic Church, is a remarkable achievement. The movie, which has been nominated for six Academy Awards including best picture, vividly captures the mix of frustration, drudgery and excitement that goes into every great investigative story.
Related: The 88th Oscars: Focus on Hollywood, F&O blog, collation of Oscars stories


Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Brian d'Arcy James, Michael Keaton and John Slattery in 'Spotlight.' Publicity Photo: Kerry Hayes, © Open Road Films
Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Brian d’Arcy James, Michael Keaton and John Slattery in ‘Spotlight.’ Publicity Photo: Kerry Hayes, © Open Road Films

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Tom Regan Tom Regan has worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and with the National Film Board in Canada, and in the United States for the Christian Science Monitor, Boston Globe, and National Public Radio. A former executive director of the Online News Association, he was a Nieman fellow at Harvard in 1991-92.






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