Thrown into the sea

October 17, 2009

When, a few days ago, I crawled out from under the rock I’d been under for a month or so, I discovered, to my horror, that a serious scandal has been unfolding in the Catholic Church in Canada.  The details are too unsavoury to dwell on, but briefly: a bishop (a former bishop, technically, since he resigned when he saw it coming) in the Canadian church, Raymond Lahey, has been charged with possession of child pornography.  His laptop computer was seized as he was trying to re-enter Canada, and the photos were found on it.  In the last few days his residence in Antigonish has been searched, and who knows what they’ll turn up.  I shudder to think on it.

Such things do not happen often, but when they do happen they cause untold damage to the Church and her witness in the world.  I don’t know that I can adequately describe the feelings that I, and no doubt other Catholics, feel: shame and embarrassment, stupefied disbelief, sorrow, anger.  It is one thing to find that a shepherd of souls, who is supposed to be leading his flock to Christ, was overmastered by ordinary weaknesses of the flesh — all have sinned, after all, and fallen short of the glory of God — and quite another to discover that his flesh was not only weak but worm-eaten and festering with perversion.  Those who know the man say they are shocked.  The human heart is deceitful and cunning above all things.  An irony is that Lahey had been the leading cleric supporting victims of an earlier clerical sex scandal.  The financial settlement in that case had finally been completed earlier this year.

In Canada, child pornography legislation protects everyone under 18 years of age from exploitation.  That is right and proper, but it introduces an ambiguity into charges related to child porn, for it glosses over a meaningful distinction between an attraction to children (pre-pubescent) and an attraction to sexually-mature teenagers — there is a difference, I mean, between desires for a 7-year old and desires for a 17-year old, at least if one wants to identify the nature of the underlying pathology.  At the risk of provoking lurid imaginings, part of me wants to know which side of that hidden divide Lahey’s crime falls under.  I’m afraid I fear the worst, but would like to know if I am wrong.

Fr. Raymond de Souza, in a column in the National Post, sees some sign of hope in the way this case is being handled.  The Pope swiftly accepted Lahey’s request to step down from the episcopacy, presumably (but not certainly) because he was told why.  Lahey’s Archbishop, Anthony Mancini, has been public and unequivocal in his condemnation of Lahey’s behaviour.  The days when the authorities might yield to the temptation to cover-up such problems are, let us hope, well and truly over.  Still, this man was a bishop.  How did that happen, especially since (we now learn) accusations of a similar sort were made against him twenty years ago?  That is a serious failure of due diligence, to say the very, very least.

Lahey is now in the hands of the justice system, and we will let it do its work.  I hope, of course, that he will experience true contrition and repentance.  I also hope that the punishment will fit the crime.  It shouldn’t be too difficult to come up with a big old millstone and a bit of rope.

8 Responses to “Thrown into the sea”

  1. Nick Milne Says:

    …there is a difference, I mean, between desires for a 7-year old and desires for a 17-year old, at least if one wants to identify the nature of the underlying pathology.

    The realities of human bodily development being what they are, I don’t know that I’d even describe attraction to a 17-year-old in terms of “pathology” in the first place, depending upon the 17-year-old in question. It would be imprudent, certainly, but neither particularly monstrous nor (in Canada, anyway) illegal.

    Now, if the attraction were felt because of the age itself, we’d be in far more dangerous waters, but there are some 17-year-olds who would not be immediately distinguishable from someone in their twenties, and to be attracted to them simply because they were attractive would hardly be cause for the millstone.

    Lahey’s case seems to be far, far worse than this, however. I am not looking forward to what the next few weeks dredge up.

  2. cburrell Says:

    Yes, you are right, and I expressed myself badly. The ambiguity in charges related to “child porn” is exactly this one: does it actually involve children? Minors, yes, by the legal definition, but children? Pornography involving teenagers is still exploitative, and it’s still pornography, so it merits condemnation, but it’s a different sort of condemnation from that reserved for genuine pedophilia.

  3. Matthew Says:

    You may be interested to listen to the interview from As It Happens on October 6 with Father Kevin Molloy, who worked with Lahey when he was a parish priest 20 years ago. Here’s the intro to the piece and a link to the .mp3 podcast. The interview starts around 1:40.

    “Our advice to children facing abuse is, “Tell an adult you trust.” But sometimes, when a child does that, the adult’s response is unpredictable.

    “Shane Earle’s story is a case in point. He’s the person responsible for blowing the whistle on physical and sexual abuse at Mount Cashel Orphange in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Twenty years ago, Mr. Earle — a teenager at the time — told a trusted adult that he had seen pornography at the home of then-Father Raymond Lahey.

    “Last week, Mr. Lahey, who had long since been promoted to Bishop of Antigonish — was charged with importing and possessing child pornography. And then, yesterday, the church acknowledged that its officials knew about Mr. Earle’s allegations against Mr. Lahey, back in 1989.

    “The adult Shane Earle confided in those many years ago was his parish priest, Father Kevin Molloy. And tonight, we reached Father Molloy in Tampa, Florida.”

    [audio src="" /]

  4. cburrell Says:

    Thanks for that, Matthew.

  5. Matthew Says:

    Now that you and your contributors have had a chance to listen to the interview, I wonder what your take is. I understand that Father Molloy did everything he thought he could at the time, but I’m puzzled at the lack of regret given what he knows now. The whole situation seemed to have been handled in an “old boys network” sort of way, including Father Molloy telling Lahey about the allegations and deciding that he seemed sufficiently embarrassed about it that the matter could be considered closed. The way it was handled also suggests that these sort of incidents, which seem beyond the pale of ordinary weaknesses of the flesh, are more commonplace than we are generally led to believe. Otherwise, how could Lahey have become a bishop afterwards?

  6. cburrell Says:

    Fr. Molloy says that he was told about the presence of pornography in the residence of (then) Fr. Lahey, but nothing about child pornography, and nothing about which the police would need to be involved. As such, it’s not clear what we could expect him to have done. He spoke to Fr. Lahey, and he spoke to the archbishop. Call that “handled in an old boys network” if you wish; you might just as well call it “fraternal correction”. Every priest, just like every person, has moral faults, and if nothing illegal has occurred then perhaps the best that one can do is confront the person with their sin. Fr. Molloy did that. Personally, I think he handled it pretty well.

    How Lahey became a bishop is a good question. The answer to that question depends on who knew what when. And since I don’t know who knew what when, anything I can say would be speculation.

  7. Matthew Says:

    I had to think about your response for a while. I guess I can’t reconcile the idea that someone’s “flesh was not only weak but worm-eaten and festering with perversion” with the idea that the offence was excusable earlier because it wasn’t illegal. Yes, Father Molloy didn’t know that it was child pornography, but showing any pornography to a recent victim of a well-publicized sexual abuse scandal is not exactly good judgement. Often (but not always), where there is smoke there is fire. The fire in this case may have been in southeast Asia because it was Lahey’s travel to sex tourism countries there that piqued the interest of border officials in Lahey in the first place.

    Even if what Lahey did wasn’t illegal, aren’t there laws in the church that deal with this sort of situation? Are the clergy of the church answerable only to the laws of men? If so, wouldn’t that except the laity in Canada from church doctrines like the prohibition on divorce and abortion to name but two?

    I don’t think it takes any speculation at all to conclude that the incident, which according to Molloy he reported at the time and long before Lahey became a bishop, wasn’t taken seriously. After concluding that, I don’t think it unwarranted to take the very short step to speculate that Lahey was given a slap on the wrist, if anything, and later a bishopric because no red flags showed up on his file. Perhaps, Father Molloy did all that he could, but I wish he had done more.

  8. cburrell Says:

    A question that hasn’t been answered yet is what, if anything, the archbishop did when Fr. Molloy reported the problem to him. If he did nothing, that was a clear fault. The church does have means for addressing moral failings in her priests, but such means are usually compatible with their remaining priests, and even with their becoming bishops. All priests have moral failings, as I said, though some are obviously more serious than others. It should also be said that, unfortunately, candidates for bishop are sometimes chosen based on their administrative or leadership abilities, and not on their personal sanctity. Would that it were otherwise.

    When I read the news articles, my impression was that Shane Earle had seen the offending material accidentally, through a half-closed door, or in a drawer. If he was actually sat down and shown the stuff by Fr. Lahey, that should have raised even more red flags, and could in itself constitute abuse.

    You are right that the legality or illegality of the material according to civil law is not the main issue. The Church disapproves of all pornography, whether involving heterosexuals, homosexuals, adults, or children. Some kinds are worse than others.

    Until I learn otherwise, I must assume that Fr. Lahey disguised his problem so that the full extent and nature of it was not known. If that turns out to be false, and yet he was promoted to bishop, etc., then some people are going to have some serious explaining to do.

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