[S.I.S.I.S. note: The following mainstream news article may contain biased or distorted information and may be missing pertinent facts and/or context. It is provided for reference only.]
One of the most notorious sex cases in Canadian history came to an unusual end early this week in a private seven-hour native healing circle in which former Prince George bishop Hubert O'Connor apologized to the native Indian women with whom he had sex. After the healing circle, with the consent of the native women O'Connor had been charged with sexually abusing 30 years earlier when he was principal of St. Joseph's residential school near Williams Lake, the B.C. Crown decided not to pursue its prosecution against the disgraced 71-year-old bishop.
The infamous case of O'Connor -- which involves the highest Catholic official in the world ever believed to have been charged with sex crimes -- has dragged through the courts for more than seven years. Two trials had been held as well as numerous appeals, including one to the Supreme Court of Canada. The defence lawyer for O'Connor, Chris Considine, had slowly whittled the original six charges involving five former students and employees of O'Connor down to one count of rape, which the Crown was ready to take to the Supreme Court of Canada.
But the complainants and native community said they were growing weary of what they considered a destructive court process. So with the smell of sacred sage smoke drifting through a native meeting hall in Alkali Lake on Monday, O'Connor apologized to his former students for what he called "my breach as a priest and my unacceptable behaviour, which was totally wrong. I took a vow of chastity and I broke it."
The complainant who still had a chance of her case being heard in court, Marilyn Belleau, 51, was an 18 year-old employee at the residential school when O'Connor first had sexual intercourse with her. In an interview Wednesday, she said: "I chose to participate in this healing circle to empower myself. I was able to confront him [O'Connor] with the hurts and pains he has caused me. I have had to live with this pain for over 30 years."
After being required to give her testimony at a preliminary hearing and two trials, Belleau, her voice breaking with emotion, said she had had enough of "being victimized by the courts. They can be cold and calculating."
Charlene Belleau, speaking for the complainants and the sister-in-law of Marilyn, said holding the traditional healing circle was a big step that provided "a sense of freedom" for the Esketemc natives around Williams Lake.
The traditional healing circle gives victims, their families and perpetrators the chance to fully express themselves and reach an understanding, with no one being allowed to interrupt the other.
The current bishop of Prince George, Gerry Wiesner, RCMP Staff-Sergeant Peter Eakins, native leader Wendy Grant-John and B.C. and federal government officials took part in the circle. Charlene Belleau and Ernie Quantz, B.C. assistant deputy attorney-general, led the ceremony.
"It was nice to get out of the control of the court system and and out of the control of O'Connor himself," Charlene Belleau said. "There was no way at Monday's healing circle that he got away with anything. I would say he felt some of the fear and pain that natives have felt for all these years."
O'Connor, who had earlier infuriated natives by refusing to apologize, was required to listen during the healing circle while Marilyn Belleau and other complainants spoke in detail about how O'Connor's actions had hurt them, their families and communities. O'Connor fathered a baby with one of the women.
The healing circle had three parts, each of which began with a pipe ceremony. After a long talk with O'Connor, Marilyn Belleau was given a break and a chance to withdraw from the process. But she decided to proceed, and eventually 38 participants, including many natives and O'Connor's relatives, were brought in.
Marilyn Belleau said O'Connor was very uncomfortable during the ceremony. Asked if she believed O'Connor's apology at the end of the healing circle was an admission of criminal guilt, Belleau said no. "I cannot comment on his sincerity. But the apology to me meant a lot because it came from him personally. The important thing for me and my people is to move beyond the constant pain and to become stronger."
Marilyn Belleau said she was pleased as well with the apology by Wiesner, who is also vice-president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. During the healing circle, Wiesner said: "As a Catholic bishop I am ashamed of the violations that were actually committed by Catholic people in a school that taught Catholic values and beliefs...We find wisdom in aboriginal spiritual traditions for restorative justice and reconciliation."
Quantz said O'Connor has never admitted he committed a criminal offence. Still, Quantz said, there were four main reasons for considering O'Connor's case "unique" and winding down the prosecution against him:
- Marilyn Belleau, other complainants and the native community supported the healing circle.Quantz also acknowledged that it would be hard to get a conviction on the final charge involving Marilyn Belleau, which the B.C. Court of Appeal ruled this March could go to a new trial. "The more often you go back to trial the more difficult it is to get a conviction," Quantz said in an interview."
- Marilyn Belleau and O'Connor would face a second appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada and possibly a third criminal trial.
- O'Connor has already served six months in jail, which is almost as much time he would end up in prison before being eligible for parole.
- The circle provides the possibility of healing between individuals, and between B.C.'s natives and the Catholic Church.
The court of appeal, in overturning a 1996 conviction of O'Connor, had tossed out the argument that O'Connor was guilty of sex abuse because he was in a position of authority over the women. Now, Quantz said, the Crown would have to prove there was a lack of consent on the part of the complainant.
Both Quantz and Charlene Belleau said the decision to drop the criminal pursuit of O'Connor does not mean that the B.C. justice system should begin to go easy on religious officials accused of abusing native students in the defunct residential school system, which was financed by the federal government and run by Catholic, United, Anglican and Presbyterian churches.
Two other Catholic clergy, Glen Doughty and Harold McIntee, were convicted in the early 1990s of abusing dozens of native boys at St. Joseph's residential school, where O'Connor was principal in the 1960s. In addition, two staff members at B.C. residential schools run by the United Church and Anglican churches have been convicted of abusing their young native charges.
"Thank you for what you have said. I have listened and heard. I only wish that we had had this opportunity eight years ago. I have had a very difficult time and I believe this process will start the necessary healing.
"I am so sorry. I want to apologize for my breach as a priest and my unacceptable behavior, which was totally wrong.
"I took a vow of chastity and I broke it. I apologize for the harm I have done. I have and will continue to do my penance until I die, both in the community and before God.
"I have come here today to apologize for the harm I have done in the hopes that there will be a healing of the rifts between our communities, not because I have to, but because I want to. Our views of the case may be different, but I know that it is time to bring us together and to heal. You have spoken about your anger and your sorrow and I respect what you have said. It is a very important step for both of us and our communities to help start healing. I now realize there were incidents and events that occurred at the residential schools that were wrong.
"But it was not all bad. Please remember the good things as well: the pipe band, the academic education, the good work of many of the priests and nuns. Do not condemn them because of the conduct of myself and others.
"I trust that the meeting today will be a step forward in healing between the complainants and myself."