Warning: This story contains descriptions of child sexual abuse.
A Vancouver Island woman who says she was sexually assaulted as a child by a Catholic priest with a Nazi past is sharing her story because she believes there are other victims.
This month, the woman reached a settlement with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Victoria.
Her lawsuit alleges she was repeatedly sexually assaulted and molested by Father Gerhard Hartmann in the confessional at St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church in Nanaimo, beginning in 1976, when she was 10, and continuing until 1979, when Hartmann was suddenly moved from the parish.
According to her notice of claim, Hartmann touched, kissed and fondled the girl and penetrated her with his fingers.
“I’ve reached out because I think it’s really important to tell the story,” said the now 57-year-old woman, who wishes to be identified only by her initials, S.P. “I think that I’m not the only one who was assaulted by this priest. I think he was a practised pedophile and he was confident he could do that, especially during the sacred time of confession.”
Hartmann was transferred from Nanaimo to St. Bonaventure parish in Port Hardy. He would later serve at St. Mary’s in Port McNeill, and St. Theresa’s in Port Alice. He retired from St. Rose of Lima in Sooke in 2008 and died in 2015.
There could be victims of the priest all over Vancouver Island, said S.P.
Now that the lawsuit has been settled, she said, she realizes it was harder to “carry it in silence” than to speak up. “What makes it easier to speak out is when you know you’re not alone. And I want others to know they’re not alone and it’s OK to speak up.”
The woman, who came from a large Catholic family, said she was sexually assaulted every week in the confessional.
“The sexual assaults completely destroyed me,” said S.P. “It destroys your mental, spiritual and physical wellbeing.”
She said she lost her career in education and struggled to maintain her physical and mental health. She feels lucky to be in recovery from drug and alcohol abuse. At one point, she was suicidal.
“It’s been a big struggle. I lived with a lot of shame and guilt all my life. It wasn’t until I began the settlement process that my lawyer helped me contact a very experienced counsellor.”
Her lawyer, Robert Talach, has been involved in 450 cases against the Catholic Church in Canada.
He believes Hartmann was “silently shuffled” to the remote community of Port Hardy because someone reported him or was suspicious of him.
Hartmann should have been at St. Peter’s for five years, but he was barely there for two, said Talach.
“It was not just a premature move, but a geographical consideration when you’re sending him almost to the Siberia of the diocese. If [the silent shuffle] can be confirmed, it really helps the church learn they have culpability in this.”
Hartmann was born in Germany in 1929 and served with the Hitler Youth, helping to defend Berlin and the Hitler Bunker as the Soviets approached. He was captured and spent years in custody until he was able to emigrate to Canada.
Hartmann switched from his Lutheran faith to Catholicism. He became friends with some priests and applied for the priesthood. Despite Hartmann’s Nazi history, Bishop Remi De Roo fast-tracked his seminary studies, said Talach. Hartmann was ordained in Victoria in January 1976 at the age of 46.
S.P. didn’t tell her parents about the abuse because of his connection with De Roo. At that time, the bishop, who died this year, was “hero-worshipped” on Vancouver Island, she said.
“I felt really helpless as a child to come forward,” she said.
“My parents had Bishop Remi De Roo to dinner in our house. He was considered a hero. But he fast-tracked a very troubled, complicated man who, by any due diligence, should have been screened as not appropriate. He had the power as the bishop and in his role as Human Rights Commissioner, he should have known how to do that. Instead, he handpicked him and transferred him all around Vancouver Island.”
S.P. said she tried several times to come forward. In the early 2000s, she wrote a letter to the diocese and was disappointed to receive a form letter in return. Three years ago, she saw on the news that a group of survivors had gone to a Canadian Bishops Conference, using their own money, to ask the bishops to be more accountable.
“I was struggling myself. I thought: ‘I don’t know how they can do that. How brave are they that they can do that.’ I thought maybe the least I could do was to write a letter again.”
This time, she received a phone call, a message from the bishop on her answering machine.
“There was no understanding of the trauma in that voice. It was really insensitive. It shook me to my core and I realized the church had a long, long way to go before they solve it.”
She reached out to Talach, who is known as the “priest hunter.”
“I decided that as hard as it was to sue the church, maybe it was the right thing to do. It motivated me, wondering who else out of all my peers that I went to church with, is there anybody else who was hurt just like me?”
The diocese website has a red link for reporting sexual abuse. It says the diocese has contracted an outside agency to serve as the first point of contact for all cases of sexual abuse, and offers a toll-free number (1-800-968-3146) with a trained counsellor to provide assistance reporting claims.
But S.P. says the internal reporting system is not enough. “I will only begin to feel that the church is finally prepared to handle this when the red button links you directly with the police.”
As early as 1962, the Vatican prepared a document on how to deal with the problem of sexual solicitation in the confessional, said Talach. The document, which is on the Vatican website, ordered secrecy in cases of sexual misconduct by priests.
“The church knew it had a problem with priests propositioning and sexually assaulting people in the confessional,” said Talach. “That document would have applied in this case.”
In a Thursday memo to the local church community, Bishop Gary Gordon of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Victoria said news of the Hartmann case is “undoubtedly distressing for victim-survivors of sexual abuse, whom we want to assure of our support,” adding it could also cause reactions of pain, anger and shame in members of the diocese.
It might also provide an opportunity for “other victim-survivors to come forward so that there may be healing and justice,” he wrote.
Gordon said in the memo he couldn’t discuss details of the case, but the diocese now has a “responsible ministry” program that’s designed to screen members of the clergy, volunteers and employees and to create protocols to ensure safe environments for children and others who are vulnerable.
The diocese’s independent sexual abuse reporting agency is managed by psychologists, counsellors and social workers, said Gordon, adding it requires courage to report sexual abuse.
If wanted, the diocese will offer support for individuals and their families, Gordon wrote.
“The process for a pastoral encounter includes compassionate listening, acknowledgment of the person’s courage in coming forward, affirmation and recognition of the hurt caused, reassurance that it is never the victim-survivor’s fault, expression of deep remorse and sorrow on our part, and ultimately, empowerment.”
In the spring, an independent agent was hired to conduct a review of historical clergy files to identify known allegations of misconduct to better respond to victim-survivors and allegations, the memo said.
— With files from Carla Wilson
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