Tales of abuse link clerics again — after 47 years

The Grade 9 student quit one-on-one math tutorials in the priest’s first-floor office, one with a windowless door and a couch, after only a few sessions.

The athletic boy instead turned to a brilliant neighbourhood friend — a quiet, gentle lad who was later a classmate — to help him grasp the basics of algebra and calculus. Awkward and evasive about why he switched tutors, the student never told his brainy buddy in 1963 what he finally told Sudbury police this summer: That the priest had sexually abused him in that private office at St. Charles College.

Today, police allege 88-year-old Rev. William Hodgson Marshall is a sexual predator who assaulted boys in a decades-long wave of abuse through Windsor, Toronto and Sudbury while working at prominent Catholic high schools managed by the Congregation of St. Basil’s religious order. The former math teacher faces nearly two dozen sexual and indecent assault charges involving16 people; thus far Marshall has not entered a plea.

Today, the brilliant replacement tutor is Ronald Fabbro, the Bishop of London, a powerful 60-year-old Roman Catholic cleric known as a whistle-blowing advocate of victims’ rights.

Together, Fabbro and Marshall share a 47-year history of criss-crossing lives that seems more Hollywood than reality: The gifted student became his former teacher’s religious boss and, as abuse allegations crushed the old man’s career years before the police moved in, he helped clean up the mess.

The bishop and the priest are central figures in a sex abuse scandal spreading across Ontario that offers a glimpse into how the church in Canada deals with assault allegations, payments to victims, civil suits and incriminating documents. The Fabbro-Marshall relationship also touches on what is good and noble in the Catholic Church and what is devastating and criminal.

Against this backdrop, a curious question arises: What did the Very Rev. Ronald Fabbro — student, priest, teacher and one of Canada’s most prominent spiritual leaders — know of Marshall’s behaviour?

As a high school kid, Fabbro was a “nice nerd,” says a former classmate, a whip-smart student encouraged by Marshall to join the St. Charles math club.

On the other hand, Marshall was a shameless predator whose brazen acts ought to have been noticed by teachers, priests and even parents, say several former students whose complaints to Sudbury police have led to 12 of the charges.

“It was an open secret but nobody would say sh–,’’ said the former Grade 9 student who struggled with math and whose identity is protected by a publication ban.

Ted Holland, another complainant who is allowing his name to be used, said Marshall was always touching students on the neck or grabbing them on the torso in the halls.

“His nickname around St. Charles was ‘Happy Hands’ Marshall,” said Holland, who entered the high school the year after Fabbro’s class graduated.

Holland said he was abused three times in 1969 on school property — twice in the gym’s change room and once in Marshall’s private office. Once was with another boy with the priest taking turns fondling them after basketball practice in his office, Holland said.

Holland and another Sudbury complainant said Marshall would often summon students from other classes to his office, with the boys returning, flustered and red-faced, to their desks. The former schoolmates said the gym locker-room was another favourite spot for Marshall, who coached school basketball teams for years.

Fabbro said his experience at St. Charles challenged him personally and academically. Spiritually, it led him to a vocation as a teaching priest in the Basilian order he would one day lead.

“I went in as a shy and awkward student (and) it was a great place for me,’’ the bishop told the Star in an interview.

“The Basilians were great teachers but they were also interested in your life. They got involved in your life, calling forth the best in us. If it was in sports or other activities in school, they were there for you.”

He also recalled that Marshall was always welcome at his parents’ home.

“We lived not too far from the school so there were several priests who would stop in and they would get to know my family. Father Marshall was one of them,’’ said Fabbro, whose family is related to the late mayor of Sudbury, Joe Fabbro.

“He encouraged me to be on the math club. I was close to Father Marshall . . . when I was in high school.”

The Basilians are a teaching order of priests who run several Catholic schools in North America. In Toronto, the flagship academy is St. Michael’s College School, where Marshall worked two separate times in the 1950s. At least one of the four people from Toronto who have complained to police about Marshall was a student at St. Mike’s in the 1950s.

Fabbro’s decision to join the Basilians would cause his life to intersect again with Marshall. One of Fabbro’s first duties after being ordained in 1980 was to teach one year at St. Mary’s High School in Sault Ste. Marie. The St. Mary’s principal was Marshall.

Marshall remained in the school system for another decade, returning from the Soo to Windsor, where he’d taught in the 1950s, to establish a new school, Holy Names. He left Windsor in 1989 to do missionary work in St. Lucia.

Fabbro travelled to Rome in the 1980s and earned his doctorate in moral theology at the pontifical Gregorian University. Returning to Canada, he began rising through the Basilian ranks, first elected to the order’s inner cabinet in 1993, then becoming its top man, Superior General, from 1997 to 2002.

Fabbro’s and Marshall’s paths crossed once more during this period. This time, the “open secret” would truly be open.

In 1996, a man told the Basilians that Marshall had sexually assaulted him decades earlier when he was a high school student. Fabbro said he was not told the man’s identity.

Marshall was immediately recalled from St. Lucia by the order’s second-in-command, the judicial vicar. He was removed from active ministry and sent to the Saint Luke Institute in Silver Springs, Md., a centre that addresses psychological and spiritual problems and a wide range of sexual issues for Catholic clergy.

“I was completely shocked,” said Fabbro. “In the days when I was at school or even teaching with him (in Sault Ste. Marie), this was something I’d never heard or even thought could be possible. It never even entered my mind.”

A year later, Fabbro learned of another allegation. It came from Holland’s psychiatrist, A.M. McFarthing, who with his patient’s permission reached out to the priest. On a personal level, the bishop said Holland’s case rattled him because schoolmates were involved — and Marshall’s alleged conduct reached back into Fabbro’s childhood.

However, it is unclear how many allegations about Marshall were made to the Basilians after 1996. Fabbro wouldn’t answer that question, saying the Basilians are responsible for that information. Fabbro was no longer the order’s superior general when he was promoted to Bishop of London in 2002. The Basilians wouldn’t divulge the specific number of complaints about Marshall, citing privacy concerns.

Fabbro said the most troubling news he received involved the Grade 9 friend he had tutored, who as an adult was suicidal, struggled with alcoholism and required psychiatric hospitalization. He is now proudly sober.

“He’d never explained to me when he asked for math help that he’d been abused,” said the bishop. “This was 40 years later and I’d had such a good experience at school (and) to find out this had happened to him . . . was really devastating for me.”

That student confirmed he never told Fabbro about the alleged abuse.

That the future bishop didn’t notice Marshall’s sexual appetite for boys, as described by complainants, didn’t make him unique. Several alleged victims said the priest preyed on vulnerable children or groomed devout parents interested in sports into trusting their sons with him.

Marshall, a Montreal native from a well-to-do Westmount clan, frequently visited the family of a Windsor complainant for years. Those parents were unaware the priest was allegedly assaulting their son in their home until he told them as an adult. That son was the first to have charges laid against Marshall; they came this past May for incidents in the 1980s.

Even parents whose sons disclosed they’d been molested were uncertain about those claims. Holland told his father about Marshall, who in turn confronted the St. Charles principal in early 1970. The principal suggested to Holland Sr. that his boy was lying. The Hollands did not go to the police but the younger Holland said Marshall didn’t touch him again.

The police have a role in this story, too. At least three of the Sudbury complainants say they reported Marshall’s past abuses to the local police but officers did not follow up. The Sudbury police have said there are no records of these visits.

However, there is a paper trail to Holland’s futile 1998 trip to the Greater Sudbury Police Service, a complaint originally found to lack merit by the officer in charge.

A few months after that 1998 police visit, Holland received a cheque for $21,000 from the Basilians. It was upped to $30,000 a year later when Holland negotiated an increase. The order said the money was for counselling. Holland, who had not asked for money or made any move to sue the Basilians, would later call the funds “hush money.”

The superior general of the Basilians at the time approved the payment. The superior general was Fabbro.

Eight years later, the city of London, Ont., and its bishop — Fabbro — were shaken by the high-profile 2006 sex abuse trial of Rev. Charles Sylvestre, who was accused of assaulting 47 girls over three decades. Sylvestre pleaded guilty four days into his trial.

Already armed with knowledge of the allegations against Marshall, the bishop did something unexpectedly bold — he produced evidence that suggested a police and church cover-up in the Sylvestre matter.

The bishop made public previously unknown 1962 police documents detailing sexual abuse complaints from girls. The documents had been misfiled — or hidden — for years in the diocese’s financial records.

Paul Bailey, who prosecuted Sylvestre as Chatham-Kent crown attorney, said he didn’t need the reports because of the “monumental” evidence against Sylvestre. But Bailey said the disclosure “pointed to a past cover-up and to the lack of action by police and prosecutors.”

“(The documents’) existence supported the victims’ claims that the church and the justice system had failed them,’’ Bailey wrote in an email.

It was as though Fabbro was blowing the whistle almost 50 years after he tutored his neighbourhood friend in math — his first, unknowing connection to a case of alleged abuse by a priest.

The bishop laughed when it was suggested he could have secretly shredded the Sylvestre documents.

“We want the truth to come out and that’s important,” said Fabbro.

Since the trial, Fabbro has met with Sylvestre’s victims.

“It’s very important for us, as the church, to reach out to them and to admit that, in our case, we’ve failed the victims of Father Sylvestre. It’s important for them to hear that.”

The Catholic Church’s fight to deal with abuse issues continues this week on several fronts.

On Friday, the Pope is summoning to Rome cardinals from around the world to a daylong summit to discuss clerical transgressions.

Two days before that, Marshall has his first court appearance in Sudbury. The priest, living in a Basilian retirement home in downtown Toronto, isn’t expected to attend.

Fabbro won’t be there either. He will be in Ingersoll, tending to local duties, which, to this day, includes inviting sexual abuse victims to speak with him in person.

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