ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - Helen Cleary Escott finishes reading an email, shifts in her chair and puts her cellphone down as she is approached at a local coffee shop.
If body language could speak it would blurt out “determination.”
“That was Archbishop Martin Currie (of the archdiocese of St. John’s),” she said, nodding at the phone.
“I sent him a copy of my book. He told me he is going to read it.”
The surprise takes a minute to sink in.
The reporter sits at the table across from Cleary Escott and places a copy of her book “Operation Wormwood” — a fiction — on the table.
It’s in the early pages of that book that the reader is introduced to a character who is a Roman Catholic archbishop and a pedophile.
In fact, there is much throughout the book that reminds the reader of the anger and criticism levelled at the Catholic church in how it has handled the numerous sexual abuse scandals — locally, nationally and internationally — that have rocked the church and resulted in a steady decrease of parishioners.
So, why send the book to the St. John’s archbishop?
Cleary Escott said she didn’t send Currie the book to insinuate or spark or instigate an angry reaction, or to pick solely upon the Catholic church.
In fact, there are other characters in the book, from a range of professions, who are deemed to be pedophiles.
But, she said, there is a message in the book that she hopes Currie and others in positions of power in the church will take to heart. It outlines a strategy she says the church should use to properly deal with the sexual abuse scandals, help with the healing of victims, and start to once again fill the pews of the church.
OK, so that seems reasonable.
Then comes the second surprise from the author.
“I also sent a copy to Pope Francis (at the Vatican),” Cleary Escott said. “And to the Archbishop of Dublin (Diarmuid Martin).”
Pope Francis made a visit to Ireland in August that sparked wide-ranging protests from people who are disgusted with the Vatican’s lack of action in dealing with the sex-abuse scandals all over the world.
“I read in The Telegram that Pope Francis was going to Dublin, and I read that story about the victims who were protesting and how the archbishop went in support of the victims, and they all wanted the Pope to stand up,” Cleary Escott said.
“(Pope Francis) is trying to make changes and I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, but I think in order for the church to survive, they need to come out and fire — I understand the church is all about forgiveness — but they should also be about firing convicted child abusers.
“The Archbishop of Dublin was very impressed I had sent him the book and he came back to me in a week with a letter saying he received the book and will read it.”
She didn’t get a response from The Vatican.
“I said to them all in the letter (accompanying the book) that I know the first couple of chapters are going to be hard to read, because there’s an archbishop in this book who is a pedophile, but there’s also a priest in this book who is a hero. And if you want to bring people back to the church, look at what (the character) Father Peter Cook did, and copy it. This book is a communications strategy for you.”
Cleary Escott is well-versed in communications strategies.
She is a retired civilian member of the RCMP in Newfoundland and Labrador who worked as the senior communications strategist for the province. She worked as the communications lead on many high-profile events and cases the RCMP was involved in.
“I was highly trained by the RCMP to be a strategist and fix problems,” she said. “The message in the book for the Roman Catholic Church is, if you want people to come back to the church, you have to acknowledge the sexual abuse against children and you have to start firing people. If a priest is accused, remove him immediately. If convicted, he should be fired. And you have to provide and pay for counselling for victims.
“If Pope Francis does not do something radical to deal with the abuse of children in the church, within 50 years I think you will see the Catholic church on its last legs. Churches are closing down and amalgamating everywhere. Even the older people aren’t going anymore because they are tired of having to deal with this problem and having to defend their religion.”
Cleary Escott says “Operation Wormwood” was 10 years in the making.
It’s been described as a crime thriller that takes a crack at the dark issue of pedophilia through the eyes and interactions of characters across the medical, police and religious professions in the City of St. John’s.
It was sparked by the many horrific files that came across Cleary Escott’s desk and her own eventual diagnosis of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in reading the files.
She said it also came about by working with so many devoted RCMP investigators who had to deal directly with the many difficult cases, their own diagnoses of PTSD and the resulting personal impacts upon their lives.
“Sgt. Nicholas Myra in the book is a combination of many of the officers I worked with,” she said. “I didn’t want him to be some tall, good-looking perfect cop who never did wrong and always solves a case. I wanted him to be extremely flawed, to be divorced, going through PTSD. I wanted him to reflect real police officers.”
Cleary Escott said while most people have complimented her on the book after reading it, there are some who are afraid to delve into its pages.
“I’ve had people come up to me at book signings and ask, ‘What’s it about?’ And I say it’s about going after pedophiles. And they say, ‘No, I don’t want to read anything about pedophiles, it’s too upsetting to me.’
“I don’t understand it. If you don’t know about it, how are we going to stop it?”
Cleary Escott explains it is not just the Catholic Church that has to change its approach to dealing with pedophiles, but the law has to change. She hopes her book can raise some eyebrows among those in power in government.
“At some point I want to see myself in Ottawa before some kind of hearing that is looking at changes to the laws around child abuse,” she said. “And the problem with the laws is that they are the same for children as they are for adults. It’s just sexual abuse and different categories of it.
“I think if you sexually abuse a child under the age of consent, which is 16, then you should be charged with the sexual torture of a child, not sexual assault. I think we should change the terms. Any abuse of a child affects how they live the rest of their life. It re-wires their brain. It’s sexual torture of a child.”
Cleary Escott said she always knew the book would be written someday, but didn’t find the time until her retirement.
Then, she said, the book “seemed to write itself.” There were times she couldn’t remember what she had written the night before until she read it over again.
“I was very conscious that I wanted to write a book that would give some closure to victims, but I was also very conscious that I didn’t want to provide material that would excite pedophiles,” she said. “My motto through the whole thing was to give vengeance to the victims and create paranoia among the pedophiles.”