Given the extent of the sex abuse scandals that rocked the Western world over the last 10-20 years, the Church — and indeed the entire world — has reached a growing awareness of just how difficult it is for a child-abuser to ever be rehabilitated. The relapse rate has proven very high. The wishful thinking of reintegrating molesters into parish work has proven disastrous, leaving a trail of devastated children. That’s why the Church’s rules for dealing with such crimes have grown stricter over time.
We need to revisit this painful issue given that Ottawa has at least one convicted child molester, Fr. Ed MacNeil OMI doing public ministry in our parishes.
In 1992, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) published a document called From Pain to Hope. This became the benchmark for the Canadian Church’s policy on priest-abusers. Recommendation 20 on page 50 allowed for the possible return of convicted priest-abusers under certain conditions. They explicitly opposed a systematic ban of convicts from active ministry:
The bishop should neither promote re-entry of priests at all costs, nor refuse reentry of priests under any circumstances.
Ten years later, in 2002, as sex abuse revelations were exploding left and right in the US, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) adopted a zero tolerance policy on priest offenders. One strike and you’re out, never to return to active ministry. This remains their policy today:
Diocesan/eparchial policy is to provide that for even a single act of sexual abuse of a minor*—whenever it occurred—which is admitted or established after an appropriate process in accord with canon law, the offending priest or deacon is to be permanently removed from ministry and, if warranted, dismissed from the clerical state. (Source, article 5, page 6)
The US bishops were so serious about this, that they had their Essential Norms approved by the Vatican and made into a particular law for the United States, meaning that all bishops must enforce it alongside canon law.
Also in 2002, the CCCB convened a special task force to review its document From Pain to Hope. Their report, submitted in 2005, recommended a zero tolerance policy, much like the US:
To prohibit a priest who has been convicted of sexual abuse of a minor, and who has been either sentenced or received a suspended sentence, from exercising any public ministry, that is, any pastoral charge or activity which is exercised in the presence of members of the community. (Source)
Unfortunately, the CCCB appears to have rejected this recommendation. The most recent policy document on sex abusers that I can find on the CCCB’s website, dating to October 2007, allows for convicted sex abusers to return to public ministry:
Element 2.9: Canonical Measures
The protocol should provide for a mechanism whereby the Bishop systematically assesses the canonical measures to be implemented with respect to a person who has committed sexual abuse. These measures should be adapted to the abuser’s canonical status. They may include restrictions, a temporary or permanent suspension of the exercise of ministry, or even a request for laicization, which is to be submitted to the Holy See. Canonical measures do not depend on whether the abuser was charged or convicted of a crime under the Canadian Criminal Code or other civil legislation, or whether the abuser was found to have committed the abuse by a civil court. (Source)
I find that very soft. Overall, that policy document is very expansive on measures to prevent abuse, but short on punitive measures for convicted abusers. That makes sense at first blush, except that the priests most likely to sexually abuse children are priests who have already done so in the past. That makes the punitive measures very, very important for preventing future abuses.
Of course, the CCCB document holds no authority in and of itself. The final decision and responsibility rests with the local bishop. In the case of Ottawa, I couldn’t find a document describing the policy for sex abusers on the Archdiocese’s website. Msgr. Kevin Beach, Vicar General & Chancellor for the Archdiocese, was quoted in 2011 as saying:
Fr. MacNeil is an Oblate of Mary Immaculate, a religious institute of pontifical right. Therefore, what he can, or can not do, within an Oblate house falls under the jurisdiction of his religious superiors. (Source)
Let me reiterate that I have no evidence of any wrongdoing by Fr. Ed MacNeil since his release from prison. However, it strikes me as very pastorally imprudent to allow him back into public ministry. I wouldn’t risk a child’s safety. My advice to Catholic families would be to avoid St. Joseph’s parish and Canadian Martyrs church, where Fr. MacNeil is known to have done work.