The head of the Roman Catholic Church in St. John’s understands there are mixed emotions being expressed at the news that former archbishop Alphonsus Penney has died.
But in expressing his condolences, Archbishop Martin Currie said he appreciated the way Penney handled the aftermath of what was one of the darkest periods in the church’s history.
“He lived in a difficult time in the church,” Currie told The Telegram Wednesday, referring to the scandal that erupted in the late 1980s over allegations of widespread sexual abuse of children by clergy that dated back to the 1970s.
“But we are grateful for the courage that he showed in calling the Winter Commission of inquiry into child sexual abuse and for his integrity and fortitude in resigning upon receipt of the report.”
Penney died Tuesday after hitting his head in a fall at St. Patrick’s Mercy Home, a long-term care facility. He was 93.
Born in St. John’s in 1924, Penney was ordained a priest in 1949 and served as bishop of Grand Falls from 1972-79. He was appointed archbishop of St. John’s in March 1979 and held the position until 1991, when he resigned after the Winter Commission of inquiry found he likely knew priests in his archdiocese were sexually abusing children.
In 1992, while testifying at the inquiry — which Penney had called — he admitted he first learned of allegations against Father James Hickey in 1987.
It was also revealed that many boys at the Mount Cashel Orphanage in St. John’s had been physically and sexually abused by Christian Brothers, who ran the orphanage.
A number of lawsuits resulted and the religious order eventually filed for bankruptcy.
The Roman Catholic Church also faced numerous legal actions. Since the 1990s, the church and its insurers have paid millions of dollars to victims who were sexually abused by priests.
The scandal made international news and was a black mark on the church, which is still being felt today, Currie said.
“It’s still difficult. It’s always very painful,” said Currie, who was the third archbishop of St. John’s appointed after Penney’s departure.
Archbishop James MacDonald (1991-2001) and archbishop Brendan O’Brien (2001-2007) held the position before Currie.
However, Currie said the church has made some positive changes over the last several years. He said the church presently has a zero-tolerance policy. Every employee must be subject to a detailed screening process, which includes police checks.
“We’ve made great efforts,” he said. “We’ve made great strides.”