The abuse started when Veronique Garnier was just 13 years old. She was abused by her parish priest, who was also a family friend.
“My world was turned upside down,” said Garnier, who is now in her 50s.
“It is very important what happened to me doesn’t happen to other children,” she said. “The more people fighting to protect children, the better it will be for children and society.”
Garnier recounted what happened to her in a video presentation at the start of an event to officially launch the new Centre for Safeguarding Minors and Vulnerable Persons on Dec. 4 at Saint Paul University in Ottawa.
The Centre for Safeguarding Minors and Vulnerable Persons’ mission is to help eliminate the threat and trauma of sexual abuse in society and in the Church by promoting prevention through formation, offering healing assistance to victims/survivors, their families, and their communities and working towards justice.
It was a stark reminder of the sex abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church around the globe, and for those behind the new centre a validation of why such a centre dedicated to safeguarding minors from abuse is vital to the rehabilitation of the Catholic Church’s reputation as place that is a safe haven for the faithful.
“It is a transformational journey for the Church and all of society,” Saint Paul University rector Chantal Beauvais said of the need to address abuse issues head on.
She added that with Saint Paul University’s motto being “Be the face of change,” that “we have to walk the talk.”
“It is a recognition of accepting responsibility and of taking practical and effective ways of addressing the issues,” Beauvais said.
The new centre, which is being touted as the first of its kind in North America, has been in the planning stages at Ottawa’s world-renowned Catholic university for more than a year.
While those behind the centre know that talking about abuse within the Church is a sensitive subject, they also know it must be addressed in an open and honest way.
“You have to tell the truth and not everyone is comfortable hearing that truth,” said Dr. Karlijin Demasure, who has been appointed director of the centre and has a long background in examining abuse issues within the Catholic Church.
Demasure, who is from Belgium and had previously served as an associate professor at Saint Paul University, was the executive director of the Centre for Child Protection at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome from 2014 until earlier this year. She received her doctorate in 2003 on child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church.
“I understand that there are people who will mistrust what is being done within the Church,” Demasure said. “But it is our task and our responsibility to build a safe environment and address these issues in an honest way.”
“We believe that the safeguarding of minors and vulnerable persons is an urgent need today,” she said.
Sister Bonnie MacLellan of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Sault Ste. Marie said rooting out abuse within the Church is a mission that all Catholics have been called upon to do by Pope Francis.
Sister MacLellan said that although that mission is not an easy one, abuse of power must be confronted and exposed.
“By their very nature revelations of abuse of power are often met with credibility challenges by those who may have a vested interest in maintaining the power-balance status quo and who may enjoy positions of power in their current organizational structures,” Sister MacLellan said.
“While we know as religious institutions that this centre is a true blessing for our Church, we also know that it is not an instant cure for what ails us,” she said.
“The centre will certainly advocate and support those who have been abused,” Sister MacLellan said.
“Of equal importance it will call all of us – Church hierarchy, religious institutes, societies of apostolic life and our society – to expose structures of oppression that overtly and covertly permit oppression including the abuse of women, vulnerable adults, minors and the elderly.”
The new centre, which will focus on victim services, research and justice, is a multi-disciplinary effort involving the university’s four faculties – canon law, human sciences, philosophy and theology.
The centre’s goal is to help eliminate the threat and trauma of sexual abuse in society and within the Church by focusing on research and education, promoting prevention strategies and offering healing assistance to those affected by sexual abuse. It is hoped that the centre will become a resource not only for within the Church, but for civil society as well.
Ottawa Archbishop Terrence Prendergast, who is chancellor of Saint Paul University, said he’s proud that the Centre for Safeguarding Minors and Vulnerable Persons has been established at the university in Ottawa and the centre is “vital in society and in the Church.”
He said abuse has had a “devastating effect on many lives and must come into the light.”
“We know we can do even better than we have been,” he said of the efforts within the Church, globally and in Canada, to root out abuse and help those who have been affected.