Not again! A local parish priest is charged with sexual assault

December 12, 2014
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By Lea Z. Singh |
Black priest robe and collar with cross

For too many people, this kind of news is no longer news. For us, it hit too close to home this time: last week, one of our neighbourhood priests was charged with sexually assaulting a 14-year-old boy. The assault apparently happened eight years ago, and Ottawa police believe there could be more victims.

Fr. Stephen Amesse was no stranger to our family. We sometimes attended masses at his historic country parish and chatted with him on occasion. Most importantly, he baptised our godson.

It's true that we didn't like his popularity-seeking behaviour and homilies, and he struck us as somewhat leftist in general. Still, the charges came as a complete shock.

Two Sundays ago, Fr. Steve was going through the pews shaking hands and patting shoulders. Then suddenly bam - wiped right off the map in a lightning bolt. A Thursday appearance in court via videolink, a release on $5000 bail, all the papers breaking the story. The same day, the Crown banned him from contact with boys or girls under 16-years-old, and the Archdiocese suspended him from his parish and from all ministry.

He must have known this was coming. Surely the police gave him some warning, perhaps his court appearance was scheduled? Did the Archdiocese know? 

As usual, the laity had no clue. According to one news story, his regular parishioners are still "united in disbelief" and flooding Fr. Steve with their emails of support. I can't say I share their determination to support Fr. Steve and apparently presume his innocence.

Has he been falsely accused? Yes, it's possible. Priests are not very popular these days, and maybe someone is out to get him. Maybe the 14-year-old boy's definition of abuse or assault is skewed, or maybe it is an outright lie. Hopefully, Fr. Steve will be fully exonerated. There is also the possibility that the case might be thrown out on technicalities, and we will never find out the truth. But, for the moment, he has been arrested (out on bail), which does point to something rather serious. Obviously, after a 9-10 month investigation, the police considered they had enough evidence of wrongful conduct to lay charges. So I do consider it very possible that he is guilty, though I do hope otherwise.

This past Sunday, I also realized something else: Fr. Steve's brother priests are possibly even more affected by these sad developments than we lay parishioners are. After all, they are the ones on the firing line, having to answer all the new vitriol (some of it very justified) that will be coming against the clergy and the Church. They are also the ones stuck with the physical consequences, given that there are so few priests already in this huge and fast growing neighbourhood. They can ill afford to lose a man when they are already stretched so incredibly thin.

But the moral let-down by one of their small band of brothers is surely far heavier still. Last Sunday, I listened to our parish priest at St. Monica's deliver a homily that seemed to come from his own place of pain in light of these shocking events. He didn't refer to Fr. Steve directly, but he did vaguely tie in his homily to these events, and he talked about how no matter how much other people fail, we must keep going and being the light of Christ. He spoke very well, but I could see (was I imagining?) the shadow of some inner struggle regarding these terrible news.

Scratching under the surface 

What in the world is going on? In a search for answers, I set out to find out more about the case and about Fr. Steve. I expected to find nothing, but to my shock, I discovered some stuff. A lot of this information comes from a blog called Sylvia's Site, which is dedicated to uncovering sexual abuse by priests.

1.

Many people know that Fr. Steve joined the priesthood late in life, at the age of 41. As it turns out though, Fr. Steve started studying for the priesthood much earlier. He was a seminarian at St. Paul's University in 1983, when he was around 25 years old.

However, Fr. Steve left the seminary before ordination. It is not known why he left, but one awful event is known to have occurred, which might have contributed to his decision to leave: a fellow seminarian by the name of Claude Thibault told him (Fr. Steve) that he had been abused by another priest who was then his vocation director, Fr. Gilles Deslaurier.

Claude Thibault later became a priest himself, and he testified seven years ago at the Cornwall Inquiry about his conversations with Fr. Steve regarding this abuse. Apparently, Fr. Steve helped Fr. Thubault realize that his abuser, Fr. Deslaurier, had too much control over him. Here is an abridged excerpt from that testimony:
"Steve became quite concerned about the type of relationship I had with him [Fr. Deslaurier] because he became aware that it wasn't a normal -- what he considered a normal relationship between a vocation director and a seminarian, and started confronting me in the sense of saying like that guy has way too much power and control over you."
"And eventually you came to disclose the sexual abuse to Steve Amesse. Is that correct?"
"...yes, it took a bit of a while because I really resented his comments at first, and again it was a sign of that control. I can see that today. I really defended Gilles, but eventually he started kind of cracking me up or whatever and so eventually I did share with him what had happened sexually and the abuse that I had suffered.

And again at that -- even at that point, I'm not quite sure that I was at first realizing that it was abuse because I really –– Father Gilles had worked a lot on saying, “Well, I can help you but you got to trust me; you've got to trust me; you've got to trust me.” So I wanted so much to believe, even after it stopped, that he had done that to help. And –– but I disclosed what had happened to Steve.
Up until that time and especially the way Father Gilles had worked and made me feel so special and so unique, and a number of times where he said, “I can help you, but –– like, I wouldn't do this for just anybody, but you're special”, and that grooming that goes on, it never even occurred to me –– like, I never –– at least I don't remember ever saying, like, “I wonder if that is happening with anybody else.”
But that day where I disclosed that to Steve, his question to me or his comment was, “Claude, if he did that to you, how many others did he do that to?”
And that day was like a veil lifted from in front of my eyes and I said to him, I said, “Ah, yeah.” And I had no proof of anybody else at that point but it's at that moment, my second year of seminary that I started realising that I probably was not the only one."
Clearly, Fr. Steve did a great service to Fr. Deslaurier, and was instrumental in helping Fr. Deslaurier break the bond of dependency to his abuser.

Some time after these events, for whatever reason, Fr. Steve left St. Paul's Seminary. He headed out to the Liberal Party and worked on Parliament Hill for various Liberals including Industry Minister John Manley, and Ontario Liberal Senator Anne Cools.

It would be wild speculation to wonder why Fr. Steve left the seminary. So here comes a pure guess, in light of the current charges against him: Was Fr. Steve perhaps also a victim of Fr. Deslauriers, or another priest at St. Paul's Seminary or earlier? Maybe leaving the Seminary was his way of breaking the control that his abuser had over him, without directly speaking up about the abuse.

2.

While a Research Assistant on Parliament Hill, Fr. Steve found himself drawn to the topic of clergy abuse. He signed on to work as a lay collaborator with the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops on a 1992 document called for From Pain to Hope, which "issued guidelines for preventing sexual abuse by priests and male religious". According to Sylvia's Site:
"Amesse was in a working group chaired by Canon Law guru Father Frank Morrissey omi; included in that working group were convicted molester Father Peter O’Hanley and Jeff King, then a layman and lawyer who would, at the age of 58, be ordained alongside Amesse in 1999. Also involved in the compilation of the guidelines was a Jesuit priest Father Terrence Prendergast , then a professor at Regis College in Toronto’s St. Michael’s University, now Archbishop of Ottawa."
Interesting. Not sure what this means, but somehow Fr. Steve ended up working on a document about priest abusers, alongside a convicted molester. By the way, what are convicted molesters doing in these working groups anyway?

Sometime after that, Fr. Steve returned to the Seminary. He was ordained seven years later, at 41 years old.

3.

As a priest, Fr. Steve worked extensively with youth. According to the Catholic Register, he received the 2010 Don Bosco Awards Gala’s “Heart of Youth Ministry” award.

He also became the Spiritual Director of the Ottawa Archdiocese Challenge movement, the youth arm of the Cursillo movement. It includes a retreat component, apparently for kids over 16 years old. However, Challenge also includes kids who are much younger. According to the Challenge website, it is active "in local schools, including Sacred Heart High School and elementary schools".

Sylvia's Site also reported that St. Stephen Catholic School presents an annual award in Fr. Steve's name: “The Father Steve Amesse Christian Excellence Award is presented annually at St. Stephen Catholic School to a grade six student who exemplifies outstanding Christian values”.

Putting it all together

I am not trying to say that Fr. Steve is guilty. In fact, all of these revelations mean nothing in and of themselves. But in light of the present charges against Fr. Steve, they do help me to see a more complete picture of the surrounding circumstances. 

Photo: katie cowden via photopin cc

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