Victims of sexual abuse at the hands of clergy and their advocates say the trial of a Canadian Roman Catholic bishop who faces child pornography charges is a step in the right direction.
Bishop Raymond Lahey's trial is scheduled to begin Wednesday in an Ottawa court _ a rare case of high ranking Canadian Church official facing charges over sexual misconduct.
Lahey, who was charged in 2009 with possessing and importing child pornography after border agents examined his laptop at an Ontario airport, resigned as head of the Catholic diocese of Antigonish in Nova Scotia just before the charges became public and has been living in a residence for retired priests since his October 2009 arrest.
The case was especially shocking to Canadians because Lahey had overseen a multimillion dollar settlement for clerical sexual abuse victims in his diocese only a month earlier.
Victims advocates say the case is significant because law enforcement agencies have long looked the other way in prosecuting sex-related offenses where high-ranking church officials were concerned.
"We hope that the Lahey case is a sign that the era of deference by civil authorities toward bishops may be coming to an end," said Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of BishopAccountability.org, a group that collects and posts online data and documents related to the child sexual abuse crisis.
Irene Deschenes, a survivor of sexual abuse by a priest in London, Ontario, said that although the structure of the church still allows the abuse of children to continue since the church is self-regulating, she hopes Lahey gets a fair trial to provide a case that can be used as a precedent internationally.
"And my hope is that the victims are not forgotten in the process, and that justice is served," she said.
Last year, the Vatican revised its sex abuse norms to include acquiring, possessing and distributing pornography of children under 14 years of age as a serious canonical crime, it also enabled the Congregation to prosecute bishops and cardinals, not just priests.
In the past, the pope would delegate the cases of bishops who committed canonical crimes to various Vatican offices or a Vatican court.
Vatican officials said they are awaiting the outcome of the trial before continuing with their own case against Lahey.
"Pornography was only formally added to the church laws in May 2010 and with this case, it shows how seriously those decisions have been taken," said Father Francis Morrisey, a professor of canon law at the Roman Catholic University of Saint Paul in Ottawa, who has advised the Canadian Catholic Church on clerical abuse cases. He added that it's extremely rare for a bishop to face criminal charges.
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