Jun 19/98: Healing circle, or vicious circle?


Furore rises over native rite that freed Bishop Hubert O'Connor from a third rape trial

The Province
June 19, 1998
Suzanne Fournier and Barbara McLintock

B.C. aboriginal women and victims' assistance groups are angry at Bishop Hubert O'Connor's use of a native healing circle to "escape" a third trial for rape.

On the steps of the downtown Vancouver courthouse, several women's groups said yesterday they feel "betrayed" by B.C. Attorney-General Ujjal Dosanjh for breaking a promise not to use native healing circles or "alternative justice" for serious sex offenders. And a coalition of victims' assistance groups said the diversion of one of Canada's most notorious sexual-assault cases to a "healing circle" sends a devastating message to victims.

"The use of alternative measures for a case of such magnitude as this is a frightening one," said Greta Smith, of the B.C./Yukon Society of Transition Houses. "The underlying message that is now being conveyed to the women of B.C. is that sexual assault and violence against women [are] not being taken seriously by our government."

Smith said O'Connor, the highest-ranking Roman Catholic in Canada to be convicted of a sexual offence, escaped a third trial "with a simple apology for breaking his vow of chastity. He failed to acknowledge guilt, thus leaving him without a criminal record for rape, a criminal offence."

All the women who spoke emphasized their respect and compassion for Alkali Lake Chief Marilyn Belleau, who was impregnated as a teenager by O'Connor.

Debra Bell, co-ordinator of B.C.'s only provincially funded native women's sexual-assault centre, said: "We honor the First Nations women who had the courage to report the actions of a prominent and powerful Catholic bishop and we understand their decision not to suffer through a third trial." But Bell charged "O'Connor was just using our aboriginal culture for personal advantage, which is ironic after he spent his career as a Catholic trying to destroy our 'pagan' spirituality."

Viola Thomas, president of the United Native Nations, said: "Both the lower-court judge and the parole board said Bishop O'Connor appeared to have nothing but contempt for his victims, so how can a healing circle magically erase 30 years of him inflicting pain without remorse?"

But assistant deputy attorney-general Ernie Quantz insisted the O'Connor case is "unique" and that "alternative measures" such as healing circles as opposed to prosecution will normally not be considered in sexual-abuse cases.

Belleau and several other Shuswap women have filed a civil suit against O'Connor, the Catholic church and the federal government over sexual abuse.

Quantz said the ministry consulted Belleau's lawyer to ensure she wouldn't lose any rights to a civil lawsuit before agreeing to the healing circle.

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