By Peter Stockland, The Catholic Register
As Archbishop Christian Lépine moved through the last days of Lent toward Easter 2022, he acknowledged the worst cross to bear in his 10 years leading Montreal Roman Catholics has been the scandal of clerical sexual abuse.
“I’m always thinking about it,” Lépine told The Catholic Register in a late March interview. “It goes so much against Jesus Christ Himself. It’s not just about the numbers. It’s about the fact that one case is too many, that priests who were there to witness to Jesus Christ, witness to the love of the Eternal Father (committed) crimes or betrayed trust. Talking specifically about the sexual abuse of minors….”
His voice trails. Even in the context of a phone conversation, it’s palpable that Christ’s help is being called for at the other end of the line.
Lépine, whose 10th anniversary as archbishop of Montreal was March 20 and who marks 10 years since his public installation on April 27, 2012, doesn’t reference Christ only as a pastoral practice. Christ permeates his sentences, grounds his paragraphs, can appear two, three or more times in the completion of a single response.
“It’s about faith in Jesus Christ,” he answers when asked about the joys and burdens of his decade as archbishop. “It’s about trusting in Jesus Christ also, as the prayer says ‘Jesus, I trust in you.’ Every step along the way is about trusting in Jesus Christ, on a personal level but also as a Church, we need to move in faith as a body of Christ, as a community, as a Church, as people of God. The trust in Jesus Christ is always there.”
That body, at least in its Montreal incarnation, risked being driven to its knees seven years into Lépine’s leadership. A defrocked priest, Brian Boucher, who abused minors in the archdiocese and also conducted what was described as a “reign of terror” at ten parishes over a 20-year span, was sentenced to eight years in prison for his sex crimes.
A year later, in November 2020, a 276-page report by former Quebec Superior Court Justice Pepita Capriolo was scathing in its criticism of the Church’s “buck passing” and willingness to turn a blind eye rather than investigate years of complaints about Boucher. “The need to protect Boucher seemed to be paramount,” Capriolo said at a news conference.
Responsibility for the debacle was laid at the feet of Cardinal Marc Ouellet, once touted as a future pope, yoked onto the shoulders of former Montreal Auxiliary Bishop Tony Mancini, who retired as Archbishop of Halifax-Yarmouth two days after the Capriolo Report was released, and set on the grave of the late Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte, who was identified as consistently stonewalling attempts to hold Boucher to account.
By contrast, Lépine and his Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Dowd were lauded for their efforts — Dowd for his indefatigable digging up of evidence against the out-of-control cleric and for Dowd’s incessant demands something be done; the archbishop for initiating Capriolo’s inquiry and giving the former justice carte blanche to go where her investigation led.
Within about a year, the archdiocese was able to announce that it had acted on all 31 of her recommendations, including appointment of an ombudsman so clergy and parishioners alike have an official place where concerns and complaints can be filed, adjudicated, and acted upon. Lépine is candid those steps are but first steps.
In Quebec, where the language of the Church is literally regarded as common-place profanity, it will require going a lot deeper to regain trust, if not in Christ, then in the clerical hierarchy.
“One of the lessons we learn from the (Capriolo) report is that abuses — of conscience, of power — can be limited to what they are, but they can also be indicative of what’s to come. We need to be attentive to all kinds of abuses. I would say to eradicate sexual abuses of minors, we need to fight all kinds of abuses. If there are red flags, if you are a witness to something, here is someone you can call or write to,” he says.
That implicates everything from priestly formation in seminary to training of volunteers at the parish level, to effective listening during the daily business of the Church.
Lépine points to the horrors of the Indian Residential School system as, first and foremost, failure to listen to what Indigenous people were saying about the sins of colonial power structures, about the abuses suffered by individuals and natives cultures en masse.
Such shoulder-bending concerns seem a long way from Lépine’s appearance, a decade ago in the immediate aftermath of his consecration, on Quebec’s most popular TV talk show, Tout le monde en parle.
A youngish 60, he strode onto the stage beaming, his silver pectoral cross almost blazing in the glare of the studio lights. In short order, he had his hosts and the other guests — catechized from childhood by Quebec’s secular culture to treat the Church with scorn — treating him amicably, if not like a too-long separated friend.
That heart-warming moment for Montreal Catholics stood in stark contrast as well to the image of the archbishop braving a January Siberian wind that inflicted -28 temperatures as he said Mass to parishioners congregated on the frozen asphalt of Mary Queen of the World Cathedral’s parking lot. The Quebec government peremptorily locked the doors of churches across the province as an anti-COVID measure at Christmas. Lépine, and Roman Catholic clergy across Quebec, responded by pulling their hats and ear flaps tight and continuing to offer the Eucharist regardless of cold, snow and ice.
Characteristically, Lépine turns the episode into another occasion to bring Jesus Christ into the conversation. “Seeing people there kneeling on the ice, they were happy to be there,” he says. “They didn’t want to be anywhere else. Everyone was happy to be there praying, celebrating the Eucharist and adoring Jesus Christ in the cold, on the ice, in the snow. At every Mass, everything comes together around Jesus Christ. So for me, during the pandemic, the (outdoor Masses were) an occasion to take the Eucharist less for granted.”
Almost 39 years after his priestly ordination, a long and often difficult decade after his consecration, the cross of office can’t help but weigh heavily on Archbishop Christian Lépine at times. Yet it is a cross he carries as a gift. “The life of the Church is made from many things, but at the centre is Jesus Christ. And the sacraments are a gift from Jesus Christ.”