Inquiry Commission of Enquiry into the Sexual Abuse of Children by Members of the Clergy

Alternative Names
  • Winter Commission
Inquiry Type
Independent Review (privately run but carried out on independent principles)
Canada; Newfoundland; St John's

Key Dates

1970s - 1990
Period of investigation
May 1989 - June 1990
Period of operation


The Archdiocese of St John's in Newfoundland established the inquiry to explore the problem of clerical child sexual abuse after seven priests in the Archdiocese were charged with child sexual abuse. It was held at the same time as a Royal Commission into abuse at the Mount Cashel orphanage, also in Newfoundland, during which allegations were made against a number of Irish Christian Brothers. The Catholic Church had lost significant public support as a result of the charges and allegations.

The Commissioners were given the task to examine the factors contributing to the problem of child sexual abuse and the reasons why such abuse went undetected. They were also tasked with making recommendations around issues such as healing for victims and procedures for reporting abuse and selecting priests.

The Process
The Commission held public and private meetings with people inside and outside of the church, and invited written and verbal submissions. It also commissioned experts to carry out a broad research program.

Governing Legislation
The Commission was not established under legislation so did not have the power to summon witnesses or compel witnesses to appear nor to order documents. It attempted to model its processes on that of a Royal Commission to ensure public faith in its work but did not have the powers of a Royal Commission.

Governing Authority
The inquiry was established by the St John's Archdiocese, Newfoundland, Canada but was run independently.

Inquiry Locations
The Inquiry covered the Archdiocese of St John. Public meetings were held in Portugal Cove, Pouch Cove, Ferryland, St. John's and Marystown and private meetings in Marystown, St Lawrence and Lamaline.

Public Hearings
The Commissioners held five public meetings which also served the purpose of public hearings. Details are included under "Round table discussions".

Private Sessions
As well as meeting with victims and their families, the Commission interviewed current and former priests in the Archdiocese, including two with convictions, as well as police.

Private meetings were also held with parish councils in Marystown, St Lawrence and Lamaline.

Case Studies
As Mount Cashel Orphanage was already the subject of a government Royal Commission, the Winter Commission focussed on the seven priests who were alleged to have perpetrated child sex offences.

Written Submissions
The Commission received written submissions from individuals connected with the question of child sex abuse in the Archdiocese, including victims and their families.

The Commission contracted research into a number of areas, including factors contributing to child sexual abuse, the impact of sexual abuse and the needs of offenders.

Roundtable Discussions
The Commissioners held a series of public meetings for the public to voice their concerns about the Church's response to abuse allegations and for the Commissioners to gather information from the public about what had occurred and their expectations for the future.

Media were allowed to attend the meetings but not to use camera or tape recovers to protect the privacy of those involved.

The report notes that the first three meetings involved significant anger but that subsequent meetings became increasingly constructive as the public gained faith in the Commission's intentions and independence.

The victims and perpetrators considered by this inquiry were male.

Institutions across the Archdiocese of St John's, Newfoundland, were considered.

The report, which included three volumes comprising more than 600 pages, highlighted the terrible power imbalance that characterised clerical child sexual abuse, noting that, although the abuse reflected a broader social trend, the elevated position of priests within the Church and the Church's failure to adequately deal with allegations when they arose had exacerbated the problem. The Commissioners found that part of their mandate - to explore how the abuse went undetected - was based on a false assumption. In fact, it found that allegations of abuse had been made in the Archdiocese from 1975 but had been poorly dealt with. Victims were treated unsympathetically, with the Church ultimately aligning itself with the offender. The Commission highlighted the importance of formal apologies, especially in light of the fact that victims had been subjected to public condemnation and persecution from friends and family who did not believe them.

The report made 55 wide-ranging recommendations. These covered issues ranging from apologies and financial reparations to victims of abuse, improved capacity within the Archdiocese to deal with abuse allegations and better education about sexuality, including abuse, within schools. It also recommended changes to the way priests are treated, including measures to help alleviate social isolation.

Among the key recommendations were:

  • That the Archdiocese formally acknowledge its guilt and apologise
  • That monetary compensation be offered to victims
  • That a Victims Advocacy Board is established which is independent of the Archdiocese's administration to decide on appropriate compensation
  • That the Archdiocese assists with services to victims, their families and affected parties

Further Action
The Commission led to the resignation of Newfoundland Archbishop Alphonsus Penney, who had ordered the inquiry. Penney resigned in July 1990 in response to the report, apologising to victims and describing the church as "sinful".

On 2 November 1990, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee of Sexual Abuse announced they would publish a booklet to guide conversations about child sexual abuse within parish discussion groups. They also announced the establishment of four expert-led working groups to examine issues relating to child sexual abuse. The resulting booklet and report were published in 1992. The report, "From Pain to Hope: Report from the CCCB Ad Hoc Committee on Child Sexual Abuse", is among the most comprehensive publically available documents produced by the Catholic Church on the subject of child sexual abuse.

Related Inquiries
The New Catholic Times described the report from the inquiry as "an important study tool" for the Nature and Scope inquiry later established by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Although it did not lead to another inquiry, it was held at the same time as a Royal Commission into child sex abuse allegations made at Mount Cashel Orphanage, also in Newfoundland.




Final Reports

Newspaper Articles

Acknowledgement: this summary was prepared by Fiona Davis, Australian Catholic University