Saturday, October 10, 2009

Parishoners urged to keep faith after bishop's arrest

Parishoners urged to keep faith after bishop's arrest
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October 02, 2009 5:14 a.m.

SYDNEY, N.S. - Parishioners at a Nova Scotia archdiocese where children allegedly endured decades of sexual abuse at the hands of Roman Catholic priests were urged to keep their faith intact Thursday as the man who helped to salve old wounds surrendered to police on child pornography charges.

Archbishop Anthony Mancini of Halifax appealed to past victims of abuse and parishioners in the diocese of Antigonish after Bishop Raymond Lahey turned himself in at Ottawa police headquarters.

"We are going through a very painful, contemporary experience of the mystery of faith," Mancini told a news conference in Sydney.

"I call on you to be hopeful because we do believe in new life and in new possibilities."

Parishioner John MacEachern said he felt like he'd been punched in the stomach when he learned that his bishop had been charged with possessing and importing child pornography in Ontario.

"If it proves to be true, it is just tragic," said MacEachern, a high school vice-principal in nearby Glace Bay.

MacEachern said Lahey was held in wide esteem in the diocese for his work as theologian and a liturgist, and for brokering a $15-million settlement for parishioners who claimed to have been sexually abused by priests in the area dating back to 1950.

He called the 69-year-old priest "the face of the settlement" and the person who was going to help the local church move on from the abuse.

"If this thing is true, the contradiction is explosive to the faith of some people," he said. "It's a contradiction, and that's what challenges faith all the time."

In Ottawa, a sombre Lahey climbed out of a black sedan and pushed through a crush of reporters to surrender to the charges that have stunned his flock and shaken an already tarnished institution.

Dressed in street clothes and ignoring questions, Lahey was accompanied by lawyer Michael Edelson, a high profile criminal lawyer who represented Ottawa Mayor Larry O'Brien when he was acquitted this spring of influence-peddling charges.

Police say Lahey was later granted bail on conditions until his next court appearance on Nov. 4.

Mancini began his news conference by speaking directly to those who brought the class-action lawsuit against the diocese.

"Let me first speak to those victims of past sexual abuse and to all for whom these recent elements and news rekindles past pain," he said.

"These recent revelations take on the character of another victimization and I wish that it were not so. Because it is not what our community of faith is supposed to be about."

Ronald Martin, who launched the lawsuit claiming the diocese failed to protect children, met at least a dozen times with Lahey during the course of negotiations. He said the charges have shaken both his personal faith and his trust in the church.

"I'm struggling today," Martin said after meeting Mancini at the Lady of Fatima church in Sydney. Martin's own brother wrote a suicide note in 2002 that led to charges of sex crimes being laid against a priest.

"I've been committed to this faith my whole life and through this whole thing," Martin said. "I'm not sure any more what I can do with the Catholic church."

The charges against Lahey were filed on Friday - 10 days after officials found images of "concern" on his laptop computer at the Ottawa airport as he was returning from a foreign country.

He resigned from his post with the Roman Catholic diocese of Antigonish on the weekend before news of the charges became public.

In August, the bishop announced details of the settlement involving sexual abuse in the diocese, which includes Cape Breton Island. Lahey was not implicated in the case and had been in the diocese for only the last six years.

None of the allegations against Lahey have been proven in court. Ottawa police Const. Alain Boucher said Lahey wasn't the target of a police investigation at the airport.

"It appears to have been a random check," he said.

In an interview, Boucher said the Canada Border Services Agency found pornographic images on the computer depicting people of an indeterminate age. They called in police investigators, who concluded they had no grounds to detain him.

"The CBSA did continue their investigation ... and found other images, which caused them concern as to the ages of the people in the images," Boucher said. At that point, they asked police to review what had been found, he added.

"A forensic analysis of the computer was made and several pornographic images of young children were found."

In Cape Breton, MacEachern said he expects the charges will create "an added strain" on the diocese's efforts to raise funds for the legal settlement.

"My old parish has closed its doors and we've been reassigned to another church. We have a declining population and so we have been stretched to keep the lights on and keep the roof from leaking," he said.

"It's going to cause a further hesitancy (to donate) in the short term."

Martin said the settlement is going ahead as planned, but the ability to find healing and reconciliation is harmed.

"It has a different feeling for me now, because the whole healing and reconciliation thing that's been desired, it looks like it's something that's not really been that important."

Lahey is a native of Newfoundland and Labrador who once served as a professor of theology at Memorial University in St. John's.

In a letter to parishioners on the weekend, he said he resigned "to take some much-needed time for personal renewal."

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