It was the hardest and most daunting work I ever did in my 30 years as a reporter for the Edmonton Journal. For the better part of two months in 1997 I spent countless hours calling specific Alberta Roman Catholic parishes to ask for the names of altar boys at specific times at their church. The time period ranged from the early 1970s to the mid-1990s in about seven parishes. The officials I talked to seemed puzzled but mostly did their best to dig up the names. I didn’t tell them why I wanted to talk to those altar boys, but I am sure they knew why.
I tracked down and cold-called dozens of those boys and awkwardly asked them about their experiences with Father Patrick O’Neill. Sometimes I had to bluntly ask if they had been molested by him. I also asked them if they had friends who been fondled or worse by the Catholic priest. I felt grossly uncomfortable raising the subject, but was never able to find an approach that wasn’t terribly clumsy.
I dreaded making those phone calls but there was no other way to establish that O’Neill was a pedophile and a continuing threat who was still wearing a clerical collar, even though senior church officials were fully aware of his behaviour over decades. It’s the same old story. He was switched from parish to parish, leaving his victims behind him and finding new ones. O’Neill was sent out by the Edmonton Archdiocese for treatment at least once, which did no good. There is no cure for pedophilia. Sometimes a child molester feels powerfully motivated to stop sexually abusing young boys or girls. They try hard to avoid all contact with them, but the sexual desire will always be there. There is no evidence that O’Neill ever made an effort to avoid vulnerable children and plenty of evidence that he continued to stalk vulnerable young boys. Even after he was forbidden to say mass, he still used his collar to try and gain access to innocent young boys.
Some of the former altar boys I called hung up on me, or yelled at me and then hung up, or simply said that O’Neill never laid a hand on them. Those were the easy conversations. The hard ones were the many grown men who broke into sobs, or expressed their rage and powerlessness and repeatedly described how they’d like to thrash O’Neill because they were not defenceless children anymore. After a long conversation with a victim I would feel totally drained and dreaded making the next call, though I forced myself to do so after a short break. I talked to many of the victims multiple times and sometimes to their wives or parents. No story I ever worked on sucked the energy out of me like that one. Years later I still can’t imagine what these boys suffered and still suffer as adults and often wonder how the ones I talked to and their families are doing.
One of the advantages of successfully completing a series of journalistic investigations is that you sometimes get calls and tips from people who think they have a great story for you to pursue and publish. Some work out. I got a call one day from an Edmonton woman named Sheila Williams, head of the group Parents of Children Sexually Abused by Priests. She told me that Father Patrick O’Neill had been fondling and molesting children for at least 20 years and that she had lots of evidence. Sheila asked if I would come to her house later in the day and listen to what she and some other concerned parents had to say about the priest. Her children were not among the victims but she cared passionately about the young boys who were sexually abused.
Sheila turned out to be a remarkable and fearless woman. I listened carefully as the other parents told of their children and their experiences with O’Neill, whom they had come to despise, understandably. I found their accounts totally credible. Fortunately for me, Sheila had documented O’Neill’s movements from parish to parish, starting at St. Agnes Church in Edmonton from 1967-69, then to churches in Clandonald, Galahad, Drayton Valley, Red Deer, Grand Cache and Holden, leaving many victims in his wake. Sheila had stories to tell and was a phenomenal help to me. We made a very effective team. She also told me about another priest who was hitting on adult women, and Sheila was not intimidated when the church leaders forced her group to stop meeting at St. Agnes, her church, and discussing that priest’s behaviour, not that it stopped her or others in the group from meeting elsewhere. She was not the kind of woman that could be easily bullied, as church officials learned the hard way.
I was deeply saddened to discover during my research for this blog post that Sheila passed away in July, 2013, at the age of 80. In a world of hypocrites she was the real thing. Sheila was very smart, very determined, had no tolerance for sexual misbehaviour by clergymen and would not stand down when pressured by church officials, who did their best to cover up for their sexual offender priests. She was the real Catholic, not them. She fought for those victimized kids, not for the image of the church. I dedicate this blog post to Sheila, in memory of her courage and relentlessness. Without her help I could never have learned enough to expose O’Neill. In fact without her, I would never have known about O’Neill’s behaviour. We did it together and my admiration for her knows no limit.
I talked to the Edmonton Journal’s city editor, Sheila Pratt, the next day and she agreed the story was well worth pursuing, but we both also agreed it would be impossible to publish allegations that a priest was a pedophile without proof, which would be very hard to get. I decided my best bet was to begin by making an appointment to go directly to the head man, Edmonton Archbishop Joseph MacNeil, who knew all about O’Neill. He was the Archbishop from 1973 to 1999, the time period in which O’Neill did almost all of his molesting, as far as I can tell. I was interested to hear what MacNeil would have to say.
When I arrived at his office, the Archbishop was accompanied by the Chancellor, Rev. Mike McCaffrey, the second highest ranking official in the Archdiocese. MacNeil did most of the talking. When I asked him about the allegations of sexual misconduct by O’Neill, the Archbishop replied, “that’s a very difficult question. I don’t think I’m free to talk about Father O’Neill. I don’t think I should talk about somebody in a situation like this unless I’ve had that person’s permission,” noting no charges had been laid against O’Neill. A very convenient position to take. In a letter he later sent to the Journal brass, MacNeil wrote that he felt obliged by confidentiality to all parties not to comment on any case. “Overlying the internal church process is of course the real possibility of criminal or civil legal proceedings against an accused priest. When the civil authorities get involved, the internal review of the church must take a back seat,” he wrote.
The letter sounded to me like the words of a cynical and heartless lawyer, not a man of God. Protecting the church’s image was apparently more important than protecting the kids. Many of the victims I interviewed angrily dismissed MacNeil’s comments as self-serving. “It’s the church I can’t really forgive in this,” said Scott (not his real name). “They have a responsibility to their parishes and to the kids. They put a lot of people in jeopardy.’’ O’Neill was exposed as a pervert and moved from parish to parish when MacNeil was in charge. Where were the church and its leaders? Why didn’t they place the safety of children ahead of the threat to the church’s reputation? Of course we now know that this kind of immoral and criminal behaviour by Catholic clergymen had been happening for countless centuries in virtually every country in the Roman Catholic world and the sexual abusers and their stories were all virtually the same. Local parents looked up to Catholic priests and didn’t hesitate to trust them with their children.
I distinctly remember MacNeil’s smirk as he closed out our discussion, clearly counting on me to be unable to find enough evidence to print the allegations against O’Neill. I took his unspoken words to mean “prove it if you can,” and that I could expect no help or candour from him. I was steaming as I left the building and waited for my taxi back to the office. I couldn’t help thinking that MacNeil was confident the story would never see the light of day and I vowed to myself that if this story was gettable I would get it, whatever it took. I was angry, and that anger gave me the determination to track down a great many of those former altar boys and hopefully find enough evidence to help put O’Neill behind bars, where he richly deserved to be. I didn’t want to let those boys and their families down.
Whenever I felt spiritually drained after another long, emotional phone conversation with a heartbroken victim I would harken back to that meeting with MacNeil and make another call. I was determined to get enough evidence to get the story into print. People deserved to know the truth, not just about the molesting, but about the way the Roman Catholic Church handled the matter. I also didn’t want to let Sheila Williams down. If she had the courage to challenge church leaders then together I believed we could get to the grisly truth.
To my total surprise I got a call a few days later from an Edmonton man who told me he had been fondled by O’Neill many times when he was young and that the priest tried to sodomize him on one occasion. I asked him how he knew about my investigation and he said Father Mike McCaffrey, whom he knew well, told him about it, and said he might want to talk to me about it. I was glad to learn there was at least one church higher up who was willing to do the right thing.
The man, whom I called Scott in the story I finally wrote, was only six years old when O’Neill began fondling him. Scott, who was from Edmonton, had his worst experience in the Grand Cache rectory where he was visiting at the same time that three young Northern Ireland boys were staying there. I later learned that O’Neill, whose parents were born in Ulster, had been bringing over defenceless young Irish boys for decades.
Scott, who was 13 years old, desperately wanted to call his parents to come get him but was afraid to tell them why. For seven years he had endured the priest’s groping and fondling. The unwelcome hands on his genitals, the body thrust up against him in bed. Now O’Neill wanted Scott to join him in bed and the young boy came with tears running down his cheeks. “What’s the matter?” Scott remembered the priest asking. “You said you wanted to rape me,” the boy stammered. “I shouldn’t tease you like that,” O’Neill replied. “This is our little secret.” Scott knew it was wrong, but who could he tell? Who would believe him?
Two decades later Scott decided to share the secret he had long been hiding. He decided to tell a family friend, Father McCaffrey. He was shocked when McCaffrey told him O’Neill was a well-known pedophile, mostly a persistent fondler of young boys. I repeatedly attempted to contact O’Neill and ask him to tell his side of the story, but he never came to the phone or returned my calls. He finally sent a message back via McCaffrey that he didn’t want to talk.
An investigation is much more credible if some of the crucial sources are willing to talk on the record. The many victims I interviewed understandably declined to have their names used in the story, however, as they were all still struggling with what O’Neill had done to them, so I couldn’t forgive myself if I had tried to talk any of them into agreeing to use their real name. I felt they had suffered enough. I met with Scott numerous times and was totally surprised one day when he told me wanted me to use his name. I hesitated for a few seconds before saying truthfully that it would make the story much stronger if I identified him, but added that he might regret that decision. I asked him to think it over very carefully for a day and talk to his wife about it before reaching a final decision. That is the only time in my thirty-year career that I asked someone to reconsider whether they were willing to be identified in a story.
Scott called me the next day and said he had talked to his wife, thought things through as I asked, and decided he didn’t want his real name used after all. I had no regrets about his decision. Or mine. If he felt strong enough to identify himself in the story, that would have been ideal, but I’m sure now that he did the right thing.
During my investigation I interviewed men who said they were molested by the priest as far back as 1971 in Galahad. O’Neill recruited his victims in two ways. In each parish he worked the priest gathered around him a group of young boys, mostly altar boys. He would take the youths out to movies, Oiler hockey games or for pizza or expensive dinners. They would go on camping trips and other unsupervised outings. The parents of these children assumed that they were safe with a priest. Like other pedophiles the priest was good at detecting the vulnerable young boys who would be unlikely to tell their parents, and groom them for his pleasure.
I talked to many parents who were still outraged by the way O’Neill befriended them and then molested their sons. A man I will call Allan burned with anger when he learned that O’Neill had been molesting his three sons in the rectories in Galahad and Grand Cache for a decade. One of the boys, who was very young when the priest began fondling him, said he knows the fondling and manipulation damaged him. “It affects the way I deal with my boy,” he said, his voice breaking. “I’m not very affectionate. I do give him hugs sometimes, but some part of me holds back. I know it’s the reason.” Allan’s son, whom I call Jack, told a senior church official about the sexual abuse he and his brothers endured for years and was told O’Neill had already been treated for his problem with boys, was back in a parish, and everything was OK now. It wasn’t of course. Jack’s father confronted O’Neill. “I said ‘Why didn’t you come and apologize to me? You abused my children and you didn’t have the guts to come to me.’ ” O’Neill said church officials told him not to say anything because he might have to go to court, Allan told me.
A former altar boy from Galahad told how the pedophile priest twice sat him on his lap and plunged his hand down the boy’s pants and fondled him. Another altar boy told his parents about the molestation. “It was sick,” his father told me. “I complained about it to the church and he was removed.” A priest was sent to talk to the families, which left him disgusted. “All he talked about was protecting the image of the church” the father said bitterly. O’Neill was moved to Grand Cache, where he continued his sexual abuse of young boys. He was then moved to Drayton Valley. It happened again and again as church leaders continued to ignore the reality that more innocent children were sure to be molested as long as O’Neill was allowed to wear his clerical collar.
On at least one occasion the church sent O’Neill to the Southdown Convalescent Foundation in Aurora, Ontario, a treatment centre largely for alcoholic and pedophile priests. A fellow patient at Southdown I talked to was not impressed by O’Neill’s behaviour. While others bared their souls, O’Neill basically refused to talk, I was told. “He was very much on his guard. He wouldn’t share anything with anybody. He would simply say everything was fine. At the end of the month I knew everyone else very well because of what we had shared. I didn’t know him at all.’’ So much for his ‘treatment.’ How did I find this person? Sheila Williams arranged the conversation. Bless her.
My story was published by the Edmonton Journal on September 21, 1997, and I received an avalanche of phone calls from victims I didn’t know of before. A few of them also told their stories to the RCMP, who charged O’Neill for molesting three boys and attempting to sodomize one more than 20 years ago. Painfully eloquent victim impact statements revealed how the three were driven from the church and have fought for years to live with the memories, to re-gain their self-respect and restore their faith in humanity. The priest was sentenced to two years in prison and three years’ probation, a disgracefully low sentence, as anyone who actually talked to the victims had to know.
One of the victims contacted me shortly after my story was published. The former altar boy told me he was in a hospital bed after surgery when his mother walked into the room and handed him a copy of my stories about O’Neill. “That’s what happened to you, isn’t it,” she said. After reading it he told her, yes, he was one of the priest’s victims. He told me that he cut his connections to the church after what O’Neill did to him and began drinking heavily to cope with his psychic pain. The emergence of the truth helped heal his relationship with his family and he decided to contact the RCMP and press charges against the pedophile priest. We exchanged phone calls for nearly a year and he told me how pressing charges finally gave him a sense of empowerment. I ended up connecting him with another devastated victim and they developed a long distance friendship.
I thought the whole affair was over, but two years later someone put copies of my stories about O’Neill and the Edmonton Archdiocese into envelopes and mailed them to a few families in Northern Ireland, where the parents of some of the young boys who sent their sons to holiday with the Edmonton priest learned he was a sexual predator. In fact one of the boys had already told his parents what O’Neill did to him but they didn’t believe him. They trusted the church. Big mistake.
In 1994 a Northern Ireland boy I call Sean woke in the middle of the night and found O’Neill towering over him. The 59-year-old man had shoved his hand down the boy’s shorts and was pawing his private parts. “He kept telling me I was beautiful” the 13-year-old told Edmonton sex crime detectives. “I was confused and scared and didn’t know what to do.” Sean pleaded with the portly, balding priest to stop, but O’Neill was stumbling drunk and bent on his own satisfaction. He ordered the sobbing boy to strip and join him in the living room. On the next mattress his best friend, whom I call Michael, had watched the sordid show in disbelief. He also feigned sleep, wanting to help his pal, but afraid he would be the next victim. “I was terrified of him and I cried myself to sleep every night,” Michael said. One night he forced the kids out of his car near midnight, leaving them to find their own way home across a strange city.
Another time he kicked Michael, elbowed him in the face “and threatened to punch my lights out. After that I started standing up to him,” Michael said. When he returned home, his faith shattered, his life in shambles, he told his mother what happened. She didn’t believe him. Later he drifted into despair and attempted suicide. O’Neill pled guilty to fondling the Irish boys and was given another two-year sentence to be served concurrently with the other sentence, meaning he would do no more additional time in jail. And they call it justice.
I recently discovered on the internet a very long list of Catholic priests from New Jersey who were credibly accused of molesting young boys. That’s where I grew up so I read the list released by the church very carefully. To my amazement it included the name of a priest, now deceased, that I knew well at Seton Hall Catholic Preparatory School in South Orange, New Jersey, where I was a student in Grades 9 and 10. Most of the priests on the list were conveniently dead. This particular one gave me a few rides to Seton Hall Prep’s away basketball games and seemed like an intelligent and friendly person, who was especially nice to me, but never touched me or spoke to me inappropriately. Nevertheless it gives me a chill to think he may have been grooming me as his next victim. I fit the profile. I was a struggling youth from a very troubled home with an alcoholic and occasionally abusive father who showed no interest in my existence. Happily, I flunked out of that private Catholic school a few months later and never saw him again.
I guess I was one of the lucky ones.
Feature Photo: Catholic Archdiocese of Edmonton/Lincoln Ho, Grandin Media file photo (from this article).