The recent meeting of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, held September 23 to 27, brought with it an unexpected invitation. The group SNAP (Survivor's Network of those Abused by Priests) organized a viewing of the documentary "Prey" on the Thursday night at a cinema in Cornwall. This is a film of a court case that sheds light on the predatory actions of Hod Marshall, a now-deceased Basilian priest who was convicted for sexually abusing minors.
I first saw "Prey" at its premiere in Toronto in April. I had been invited to attend by Mike, a survivor of clergy sexual abuse. He had reached out to me not long after one of our own priests in Montreal had been sentenced for the crime of abuse. Mike had gotten my name through the media coverage surrounding that judgment.
My experience of "Prey" involved more than watching a film. Over 200 people came to the TIFF theatre for the viewing, including victims of clergy sexual abuse, their families, and others connected with the cases. Mike and I were joined by his wife, and over supper we shared our own stories. People came over to our table at the restaurant to say hi to Mike, people whose faces I would soon see in the documentary itself. I realized that this was more than a film: I was being given a chance to share the experience of a community of survivors.
Given its subject matter, "Prey" is, of course, hard to watch. More than once, something would be said during the film that I found jarring, even disagreeable. But I could not deny the raw authenticity up on the screen, including scenes expressing trauma, anger and also hope. I tried to keep my heart open to everything being revealed to us. It was the only way I could think of to honour the moment.
After the premiere ended, there was a brief but intense Q&A. Mike introduced me to the audience, and the spontaneous reactions of some were quite negative. One woman offered sarcastic comments about me and other bishops; another man demanded to know why I was there. In all honesty, I get it: this premiere was like the unveiling of a monument to survivors of these terrible crimes, and I suppose not everyone there was sure a bishop should be present.
As I left the theatre, an 80-year-old man named Bob approached me and just let out his thoughts and wounded feelings. His own son had been victimized by Hod Marshall. In the emotion of the moment, he seemed to search for his words, but he told me how proud he was of his son, and how his faith in the church had been betrayed. It was time to just shut up and listen.
My invitation included the chance to join the after-party. It gave me a chance to interact with many other moviegoers, and have serious but more relaxed exchanges. Bob came up to me again, and we were now able to speak at length. A clearly well-educated man of experience, his words expressed a sense of loss and grief, but were also deeply profound and reflective.
In October, when the new screening of "Prey" came around during the CCCB plenary, I had the chance to share some of my experience with the bishops. Five of us went: as one bishop put it, we wanted to honour the invitation. From my previous experience, I knew that would be more than just a movie. We were being invited into a narrative of lived experience.
I am glad we went. After the movie was over, we had a chance to dialogue with the organizers. We heard of the deep desire for healing and renewal. More than that, human connections were made. For the bishops present, "survivors of clergy sexual abuse" was not just a mental category, it was real people in front of them. Conversations became possible. I found myself renewing contact with people I had met in Toronto, and starting new dialogues as well.
It is clear to me that such conversations need to continue. Make no mistake, they will be challenging. Survivors of clergy sexual abuse will not be satisfied with platitudes and general reassurances that "something" is being done. Nor should they. As bishops, we need to dig deep.
My personal dream is for the church to go beyond being just a safe place for our own children. Abuse happens everywhere, and Catholics have a global presence. We have a unique opportunity to be advocates for all victims of abuse. But it will require us, as bishops and as a church, to continue to learn the hard lessons and to get our own house in order. Survivors can help with that. As I was leaving the premiere back in Toronto, Bob had said goodbye to me with these words: "We are not frivolous people." Indeed, they are not. Let's be sure to take them seriously.
Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Montreal