Mount Cashel Orphanage Abuse Scandal

On 15 February 1989, the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary re-opened its 1975 investigation into allegations of child abuse at the Mount Cashel Boys' Home (popularly known as the Mount Cashel Orphanage) in St. John's. The home was operated by the Irish Christian Brothers, a Roman Catholic lay order. In addition, in March, the provincial government established a royal commission to investigate what had occurred, headed by a retired Ontario Supreme Court Judge, Samuel Hughes. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. John's commissioned its own inquiry in May 1990, and police investigations were expanded to include the decades prior to the 1970s.

Over the following months, the public learned that the foster home had for decades been the site of repeated acts of physical and sexual abuse performed by Christian Brothers against boys who lived there as wards of the state. It also learned that police, government, and religious authorities were aware of the abuse, but took little action, despite complaints from residents and confessions from two of the brothers. Local newspapers ignored or downplayed the allegations.

The Christian Brothers formally apologized to the victims in 1992, and later paid $16 million in compensation; the province paid $11 million. Mount Cashel closed in 1990 and was demolished in 1992. The site is now known as "Howley Estates" and encompasses a supermarket and residential subdivision.

Early Allegations of Abuse

An international Roman Catholic teaching order, the Irish Christian Brothers, established schools in Newfoundland in1876 and opened the Mount Cashel Orphanage in 1898. The Brothers are not clergy, but take vows of celibacy and, until recently, wore religious habits. They came to occupy an influential and respected place in Newfoundland society, and in the mid-1970s preparations were underway to mark the order's 100th year on the island. A cabinet minister, the chief of police, and other members of the elite sat on the celebrations committee.

But as the centenary drew near, allegations of abuse by the Brothers began to surface. In October 1974, Mount Cashel resident Johnny Williams told the Department of Social Services that he had been beaten by one of the brothers, and that he had witnessed numerous sexual assaults. The department received a second complaint in July 1975 from Ruth Williams (unrelated to Johnny), who reported that her nephews were being mistreated at Mount Cashel. Neither complaint resulted in an investigation.

In September 1975, Mount Cashel residents Bobby Connors and Billy Earle visited the department to report ongoing physical and sexual abuse; they were accompanied by Earle's father, William. Social workers reported the boys' allegations to the department's director of child welfare, F.J. Simms. "Charges of severe punishment by the Brothers are not new and could indicate a limited but still present level of child abuse in the institution," they wrote (Royal Commission, Vol. I 87). Simms forwarded the complaint to the Mount Cashel superintendent, Brother Douglas Kenny, and took no further action.

Police Investigation

A complaint later that year finally resulted in a police investigation. A Mount Cashel volunteer, Chesley Riche, suspected that a nine-year-old resident, Shane Earle, had been physically abused by a Christian Brother. On 7 December 1975, Riche telephoned an acquaintance in the RCMP, Corporal Gerald McGuire, as well as Earle's mother. He contacted Social Services the following day. McGuire and two social workers interviewed Earle. He was badly bruised from a recent beating and taken to the Janeway Child Health Centre for examination. The physician reported the matter to the Newfoundland Constabulary, which opened an investigation on 9 December under detective Robert Hillier.

Hillier interviewed 24 boys, ranging in age from eight to 17. Almost all reported some form of physical or sexual abuse at the orphanage. He also interviewed Brothers Alan Ralph and Edward English, who both admitted to child molestation. On 18 December, however, Hillier was ordered by the Constabulary's Chief, John Lawlor, and Assistant Chief John Norman, to end his investigation and file a report. He did so later that day. Norman then told Hillier to remove all references to sexual assaults. Hillier refused, but complied when Norman told him the order came from Lawlor. He submitted a second report and destroyed the first one.

According to the Hughes royal commission, Hillier's first report "contained allegations by young children and adolescents, wards of the state and under the guardianship of the director, that they had been in varying degrees ill-treated by at least five and perhaps six of the ten Irish Christian Brothers appointed to supervise their living conditions and physical and moral development. Those implicated were Brothers Kenny, Ralph, English, Burke and Short" (Vol. I 129).

On 3 March 1976, and with no explanation, Lawlor told Hillier that the provincial Department of Justice had requested a second report. He again ordered Hillier to omit references to sexual abuse. The second report included allegations of physical abuse as well as Shane Earle's medical report and a statement from Brenda Ann Marie Lundrigan, who had taken her cousin Johnny Williams to Social Services in 1974. She told Hillier: "The boys are in a position whereby there is very little they can do about what's happening but a lot of people knows about it now and something should be done to help them" (Vol. II 64).

By then, officials in the police, Social Services, the justice department, and the Roman Catholic Church had been alerted to the allegations of child abuse at Mount Cashel. The media had also been contacted with no result. In January 1976, a woman whose three sons had lived in Mount Cashel until late 1975 told an Evening Telegram reporter about abuse at the foster home. The news department wanted to investigate, but the newspaper's publisher Stephen Herder quashed the story. "He had no wish to damage an institution with a record of a hundred years of good works," Hughes wrote in his report (Vol. I 137).

The Department of Justice did not press any charges as a result of Hillier's reports. Deputy Minister Vincent McCarthy made an arrangement with the Christian Brothers that the self-confessed abusers English and Ralph would be permanently removed from the province. The Order also removed Brothers Kenny and Short. Hughes wrote that "Various improvements in administration were introduced and care was taken in the appointment of superintendents for the remaining fifteen years of the institution's useful existence" (Hughes 253).

Concealment Threatened

Over the next 13 years, the cover-up of abuse at Mount Cashel during the mid-1970s was endangered from time to time. On 10 April 1979, Detective Sergeant Arthur Pike gave evidence at a provincial inquiry into a suspicious fire at an apartment complex in St. John's. Pike was head of the constabulary's Assault Section in which Hillier served. He alleged that the police had been involved in various cover-ups and described the transactions at Mount Cashel in 1975 and 1976.

Pike's testimony was reported by two local newspapers, but there was no further action. The Evening Telegram used guarded language and did not mention Mount Cashel or the Christian Brothers. It reported on 17 May that: "The second case Pike brought up was one involving an investigation into alleged assault and sexual assault incidents on the part of three men against young boys. No charges were laid as a result of the investigation although, Pike reported, the investigator thought there was sufficient evidence. … In this case the three men were transferred to the United States and would not be in a position to repeat the alleged offence."

The Daily News was more explicit in its front-cover story, which ran on the same day as the Telegram's report. Under the headline "Secret Testimony Comes Out," the paper listed Pike's allegations in point form, including "The case of three Christian Brothers alleged to have sexually assaulted two children at Mt. Cashel Orphanage in 1975."

The Christian Brothers' provincial superior in St. John's, Gordon Bellows, reported the media coverage to the Order's superior general in Rome: "You can imagine the shock and embarrassment of the monks in Newfoundland at this unexpected revelation - since so many of them had absolutely no inkling whatsoever of the episode. Over a week has now passed since the news outbreak. At the moment all appears calm. However, last night Premier Peckford called a Provincial election for June 18. I'm worried that in the hurly-burly of politics the Liberal Party may play it 'dirty' and the Mt. Cashel episode (together with other confidential Justice Department Reports) [may be] used to embarrass the Government, and still further embarrass our Congregation" (Royal Commission, Vol. I 148-149).

His fears were unfounded. Despite the importance of these allegations, no action was taken. All remained calm until 1982, when the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary and the Department of Social Services responded to new allegations of abuse at Mount Cashel. Police found that Brother David Burton had been molesting a boy at the orphanage for about a year. Charges were laid and Burton was sentenced to four months in jail and three years probation. The Court of Appeal reduced his term to time served (12 days) and, in lieu of probation, allowed him to receive whatever treatment the Christian Brothers deemed fit.

By the late 1980s, the problem of sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic Church was receiving widespread attention, since two Roman Catholic priests, Fathers Hickey and Corrigan, had been convicted of sexual offences against boys in 1988. There followed two telephone calls which led to the reopening of the Mount Cashel investigation. On 13 February 1989, the Associate Deputy Attorney General, Robert Hyslop, received a call from a woman demanding a public inquiry into the 1975 Mount Cashel allegations. And that night, a caller to VOCM's popular Open Line program alleged that authorities had concealed abuse at the orphanage. A Court of Appeal judge, John W. Mahoney, spoke with Hyslop the next day about the allegations. The latter requested all relevant police reports, and contacted the justice minister, Lynn Verge. She announced on 15 February that the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary was reopening the file.

Royal Commission Appointed

News of a revived investigation prompted the former Mount Cashel resident Shane Earle go public with his story in the Sunday Express on 19 March 1989. The article sparked a strong public reaction and an important political response. On 14 April 1989, the government established a royal commission of inquiry, chaired by retired Ontario Supreme Court Judge Samuel Hughes, to investigate how the justice system had handled complaints at Mount Cashel.

Public hearings began on 11 September 1989 and lasted for 156 days. More than 200 witnesses appeared before the commission. Sunday Express editor Michael Harris wrote that "By the time the Hughes Inquiry had finished its somber deliberations on Mount Cashel, it had laid bare a stunning, collective failure of the judicial, police, religious, media and social service establishments to protect the interests of hopelessly vulnerable and cruelly abused children" (Harris, Unholy xxvi).

Hughes found that neither the Constabulary nor the Justice Department treated the 1975 and 1976 Mount Cashel files normally. The Department of Social Services was also found to have acted improperly by giving Mount Cashel privileged status as a foster home. Hughes reported that, "The director of child welfare, Frank J. Simms, insisted on special treatment for the Christian Brothers as "foster-parents", and reports emanating from Mount Cashel went direct to him over the heads of district and regional offices of the Department of Social Services" (Vol. I 432). Simms referred complaints of child abuse back to Mount Cashel, allowing the Christian Brothers to investigate themselves instead of assigning an independent social worker to make an assessment.

Recommendations and Response

Hughes made 35 recommendations to improve the government's response to allegations of child abuse, noting that many positive changes had already taken place in the intervening 15 years. He recommended that police be given greater independence from the Justice Department and that, if the department "decides a prosecution should not proceed, the investigating officer should be promptly notified of that decision and the reasons for it, and in turn, he or she should ensure that all complainants are advised" (Vol. I 434).

He also recommended that better communication should exist between police and Social Services when investigating complaints of child abuse. No foster parent or home, he wrote, should be given special status, and under no circumstance should allegations of abuse from child complainants be disclosed to those responsible for their care.

Other recommendations addressed the training of police and social workers in child abuse response, the creation of a child abuse register, and the charging of adults who did not report knowledge of child abuse to the authorities. Hughes also advised the province to compensate Mount Cashel victims in a timely fashion "on the assumption, but without an admission, that it is liable to the said claimants" (Vol. I 489).

By the time Hughes submitted his report on 31 May 1991, 87 charges had been laid in the RNC's reopened investigation. Nine Christian Brothers were convicted. A confidential settlement in 1997 awarded more than 40 victims $11 million in compensation from the province, while the Christian Brothers were ordered to pay approximately $16 million to 83 victims in 2003.

Winter Commission

In 1989, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. John's commissioned an inquiry into the sexual abuse of boys by members of the clergy and Christian Brothers. Headed by former Lieutenant-Governor Gordon Winter, an Anglican, the commission strongly criticized the Archdiocesan administration for its handling of child abuse allegations, writing that it adopted a "minimal response policy" (138) which often amounted to no more than sending the offenders out of the province.

"Church officials aligned themselves with the accused;" the commission wrote, "their response to victims was thus inappropriate and un-Christian and this compounded the victims' initial sense of betrayal by the Church" (139). Archbishop Alphonsus Penney resigned as a result of the commission's findings.

In 1992, the Christian Brothers publicly apologized to Mount Cashel victims and the orphanage was demolished. The future use of the 20-acre property became a source of controversy. The supermarket chain Sobeys expressed interest in building a store on the site, but some former residents and members of the public argued that a youth centre and ballpark would be more appropriate. Nonetheless, Sobeys received permission from the city and province in 1998 to build a supermarket and residential subdivision on the property. A small memorial to the children of Mount Cashel is installed on the site.

Article by Jenny Higgins. ©2012, Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site

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