Jun 18/98: O'Connor finally confesses


A Roman Catholic bishop apologizes for his sins, and a proud native woman can start putting the past behind her

The Province
June 18, 1998
Barbara McLintock - Victoria Bureau

[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.]

Bishop Hubert O'Connor publicly confessed and apologized for the pain he caused his victims more than three decades ago.And with that, the highest-ranking Roman Catholic ever to be charged with sex offences ended up free of criminal charges.

In an unprecedented move, the Crown and defence lawyers, the victim, native leaders and O'Connor agreed to a traditional native healing circle instead of another round of trials and appeals. The circle took place at Alkali Lake, near Williams Lake, on Monday and ended with about 70 members of the native community cramming into the community hall to hear formal apologies from O'Connor and the Roman Catholic church.

Assistant deputy attorney-general Ernie Quantz said yesterday the O'Connor settlement must not be considered a precedent for other cases. "This was an exceptional case," said Quantz, adding that the policy is to prosecute in all sex-offence cases where there's a reasonable likelihood of conviction.

But in O'Connor's case the court proceedings have dragged on for more than seven years. Quantz also noted O'Connor has served six months in jail and would return to jail for little time even if reconvicted, there's no guarantee the Crown would win another appeal or trial, and victim Marilyn Belleau and her family preferred the healing-circle approach.

Belleau, who's told her story three times in court, said she wasn't sure "if I would have had the strength or the energy to go through it all again." She said she was frustrated that the court system dealt only in the facts and never let her express to O'Connor her feelings about the pain he had caused her.

Her sister-in-law, Charlene Belleau, said the band -- long known for its pioneering tradition of sobriety and healing -- felt the need for the healing circle so all involved could move on. A circle based on trust, respect and honesty, she said, was "one of the most painful and fearful processes O'Connor has ever had to go through," probably more so than another trial.

O'Connor's lawyer, Chris Considine, said the 70-year-old bishop, who is in failing health, "found it very, very difficult" but did feel a greater sense of peace once it was over. Quantz, who said he found the circle a powerful and moving experience, said the challenge now is to find ways to bring that type of experience into the criminal justice system, "not as an alternative to it, but as a part of it."


Healing circle eases the pain of sexual abuse

The Province
June 18, 1998
Barbara McLintock

[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.]

Marilyn Belleau is a victim no longer.

She has chosen to be publicly identified as a victim of Roman Catholic Bishop Hubert O'Connor as the last symbolic step to show her freedom from the sexual abuse that has haunted her for 30 years.

"I don't feel that shame any more," Belleau told The Province. "That cloak of shame, I've let go of that."

On Monday, the 51-year-old woman participated in a seven-hour traditional native healing circle with O'Connor, justice officials and native leaders in her home community of Alkali Lake, south of Williams Lake. She confronted O'Connor face-to-face and told him how wrong what he did was, and the years of pain and suffering it caused her. She also heard apologies from him and from the Catholic Church, which ran the St. Joseph's residential school that O'Connor headed.

"I came out of it feeling really much lighter," said Belleau.

Her friend Irene Johnson noted that after the ceremony, Belleau looked more relaxed "than I've seen you in years."

Belleau said she'd expected to be anxious going into the circle but quickly realized O'Connor was much more uncomfortable. "He kept saying so many times 'I'm sorry,'" she recalled. "I felt like sorry wasn't enough, but I don't know what else he could have said."

O'Connor never admitted to raping her -- although the one charge that remained outstanding against him was that of rape -- but acknowledged it was wrong to have a sexual relationship with Belleau when she was only 18, working in the school office, and he was her boss and previous school principal.

For Belleau, that was enough. The healing circle, she said, was the culmination of several years of working to overcome the legacy of the residential school -- not only the sexual abuse but also the years of loss of culture, loss of language, loss of traditions.

She has received counselling and has also learned from participating in traditional native spiritual ceremonies such as sweat lodges and singing. She has received support from women in Alkali and throughout the native community.

"It served me well," she concluded. "I wanted to do this at this time in my life. It was really empowering for me."


Bishop Hubert O'Connor was principal of St Joseph's residential school at Williams Lake from 1961 to 1967. He was appointed Bishop of Prince George in 1986, but resigned in 1991 when the sex charges, relating to his years at the school, were laid.

1989: Police investigation into allegations begins.

1991: O'Connor ordered to stand trial on four charges.

June 1992: First B.C. Supreme Court trial begins.

December 1992: Trial stayed on grounds Crown had not made proper disclosures to defence about counselling records of the complainants.

1994: B.C. Court of Appeal grants the Crown appeal of that decision and orders a new trial.

1995: O'Connor loses appeal to Supreme Court of Canada that stay should be allowed.

July 1996: O'Connor's second trial takes place. He is convicted of rape and indecent assault and sentenced to a total of 2 1/2 years. He is acquitted of the other two charges.

1996-97: O'Connor serves 6 1/2 months before being released on bail pending another appeal.

March 1998: B.C. Court of Appeal changes the conviction on the indecent-assault charge to an acquittal, and orders a third trial on the rape charge on the grounds the judge did not apply correct legal tests in determining guilt.

June 1998: Complainant Marilyn Belleau, the native community, Crown and defence agree to a native healing circle as an alternative to yet another appeal or trial.


The Province
June 18, 1998
Barbara McLintock

The healing circle is a traditional native ceremony designed to allow a wrongdoer to be held accountable for his actions to the victim and the community.

One of the keys of the circle, says Alkali Lake co-ordinator Charlene Belleau, is that everyone who feels he or she needs to speak can do so for as long as he wishes, and everyone will be listened to with respect and without interruption. "In a circle, there is no hierarchy; everyone is equal," she said.

A healing circle opens with a sacred ceremony and is led by an elder who ensures a respectful tone is maintained.

In the Hubert O'Connor case, the circle was divided into three parts. In the first and smallest circle, victim Marilyn Belleau confronted O'Connor with her feelings about the wrong he had done, and O'Connor apologized. A total of 38 people participated in the next phase, in which members of the victim's family and native elders also talked about the pain they'd suffered, not just from O'Connor's actions but also from the residential-school system. O'Connor then had a chance to reply and apologized to them. In the final phase, more community members joined the circle to hear formal, written apologies from O'Connor and from Bishop Jerry Wiesner on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church. The circle then closed with native songs, drumming and prayers.

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