HALIFAX, N.S. – A bishop based in Nova Scotia has been charged with possessing and importing child pornography, just weeks after his diocese reached a $15-million settlement with people who said they were abused by priests as children.
Raymond Lahey, 69, resigned from his post with the Roman Catholic diocese of Antigonish on the weekend before news of his arrest became public knowledge on Wednesday.
Police says Lahey was sent for a secondary examination at the Ottawa airport as he was returning from a foreign country on Sept. 15.
Ottawa police said in a news release that border services searched his laptop and “found images … that were of concern.”
The laptop and other media devices were seized by border guards.
“The forensic examination of the computer and media later revealed child pornography,” the release says.
He was released at the airport pending further investigations. Police say a warrant was issued for the arrest of Lahey when charges were laid on Friday.
Father Paul Abbass, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Antigonish, said he learned of the charges from media reports and hadn’t been told about the charges before the bishop resigned Saturday.
“I’m sad, I’m shocked,” he said from Frenchvale, N.S., where he is the parish priest. “I think I’m mostly concerned about our people, about our priests, about our diocese.”
Abbass said he had learned a couple of days before Lahey issued his letter of resignation that he was considering stepping down, but knew nothing more about the personal reasons the bishop cited.
He said he didn’t know where Lahey was when he tendered his resignation, saying only that he had been away on meetings “for last week or so.”
In August, the bishop announced a $15 million class action settlement involving sexual abuse in the Antigonish diocese that dated back to 1950. Lahey was not implicated in the case and had been in the diocese for only the last six years.
A notice Saturday from Anthony Mancini, the Archbishop of Halifax, said that Pope Benedict had accepted Lahey’s resignation “for personal reasons.”
Lahey, a native of Newfoundland and Labrador who once served as a professor of theology at Memorial University in St. John’s, informed his parishioners in a letter the same day that he’d resigned “to take some much-needed time for personal renewal.”
John McKiggan, the Halifax lawyer, who represents the alleged victims in the class-action suit, said he was stunned when he learned of the charges on the news.
“Like many people I expect, I am very surprised,” he said.
McKiggan said the settlement, which was announced Aug. 7, won’t be affected by the charges because it had been approved by the court, and the diocese – not Lahey – was named in the suit.
Ronald Martin, whose brother wrote a suicide note in 2002 that led to charges of sex crimes against a priest from the diocese, filed the class-action lawsuit last year against the Roman Catholic diocese.
Martin wasn’t available for comment, but his wife would only say from their home in Sydney, N.S., that they were shocked by the news.
“He’s not doing so good,” said McKiggan, who had spoken with Martin. “I think like everyone, he is surprised and distressed.”
In his resignation letter, Lahey said: “I recognize that my resignation takes place at a time when the diocese is facing a variety of demanding challenges.
“While I will no longer be with you on this journey, I am confident that your faith and compassion will continue to sustain you as they have always done. … I have already left the diocese to take some much-needed time for personal renewal.”
In the suit, Martin claimed that the diocese failed to protect children in its care when it became aware of the alleged abuse.
The Nova Scotia Supreme Court certified the settlement on Sept. 10.
“This will bring another element of pain into the situation,” Abbass said. “We want to find some hope in the midst of all of this, but right now it’s just so overwhelming.”
Mancini has been appointed administrator of the diocese until Lahey’s successor is chosen and he scheduled a news conference for Thursday in Cape Breton.
In an interview, Mancini said he spoke briefly with Lahey on his cellphone earlier Wednesday after learning of the charges through the media, but he doesn’t know where he is.
When Lahey sent his letter to the Pope, Mancini said he expects it would have to contain some details about the cause for his resignation.
“He would certainly have had to indicate to the Pope the seriousness of his personal reasons,” Mancini said.
The class-action settlement is aimed at compensating anyone who was allegedly and known to have been sexually assaulted by a priest of the Catholic Episcopal Corp. of Antigonish since Jan. 1, 1950.
The $15-million settlement includes $12 million in damages, about $400,000 for counselling fees, and the remainder to legal and administrative costs.
The lawsuit claimed five priests were sexually assaulting children in their care between 1960 and 2008. Several were convicted of multiple counts of sexual abuse.
When the settlement was announced in August, Lahey said the agreement is the first step in recognizing the alleged abuse of children as young as eight years old.
“I want to formally apologize to every victim and to their families for the sexual abuse that was inflicted upon those who were entitled instead to the trust and protection of priests of the church,” he told a news conference in Halifax.
“Sexual abuse, indeed any abuse, is wrong. It is a crime and it is a serious sin in the eyes of God. I want to assure you that for some time our diocese, like others throughout Canada, have been taking steps to protect children and youth.”
Chris Kealey, a spokesman for the Canada Border Services Agency, said people entering Canada may be sent for secondary screening based on information from ongoing investigations or based on “indicators” observed by border officials. He would not say why Lahey was selected.
Kealey also noted that no warrant is needed for border officials to search the contents of media devices or laptops.
“It’s considered part of your personal goods when you enter Canada,” he said.
The spokesman would not say where Lahey was travelling from when he arrived in Ottawa, citing both privacy and investigative issues.
– With files from Bruce Cheadle in Ottawa