Category: Religion

A Talbot grad’s courage

In four decades as a journalist, I saw many people do brave things, but I can’t offhand think of anything more courageous than the letter I received last night from Sean McSween, a pharmacist and former resident of Talbot House, the addiction recovery centre now closed due to false allegations of sexual misconduct against its former executive director, Fr. Paul Abbass.

To whom it may concern:

I am a professional (pharmacist) married (since 1999) man. I had some difficulty in life, partly due to an abusive home life while growing up and partly due to poor choices of my own.

I spent nearly ten months at Talbot House in 2001-2002. One thing I can say, and will say on record, is that Father Paul Abbass was a kind and solid psychological and spiritual presence for me. On no occasion was he a threat to my sense of wellbeing. Nor did I see any kind of misbehaviour on his part. In fact, I often saw the politics of resentment and envy — levied by some of my disturbed co-residents — threaten the sanctuary Fr. Abbass built. It seems the sick have prevailed.

When I was a resident at Talbot House, Father Paul Abbass and I went for a number of drives down to a Catholic hermitage near the Bras D’or Lakes south of Frenchvale and simply talked about life, my marriage, my anguish, my addiction, my violent (and sometimes wonderful) childhood, and ultimately my — and his — love of the beautiful natural world before our very eyes. No threat did I even once feel from him. Only love and good intention. Father Paul rescued me from a hell of cynicism and despair. I won’t ever forget the kind days he shared with me.

Sean McSween

Before publishing Mr. McSween’s letter, I wrote him back to confirm that he wanted me to use his name. “I think it will make [your letter] doubly effective,” I wrote, “but I will totally understand if you prefer not.”

Mr. McSween replied:

Certainly, use my name. I hoped that would lend it strength….

I don’t want to seek any personal glory, but only to help exonerate Father Paul and re-open Talbot House under his direction, and the direction of the Church he so skilfully represents.

Father Paul is an exemplary Catholic Christian, in that he does not proselytise with fire-and-brimstone, or even with scripture, but with acts of loving kindness and a collected, calm presence. So I feel that the presence and influence of the Church in the operation of Talbot House is essential.

A Community Services Department report on Talbot House and Fr. Abbass contained erroneous financial analysis and many factual mistakes. The report — published after CBRM Police looked into the case, and found no basis for a criminal investigation — also included vague, anonymously sourced allegations of unspecified sexual misconduct by Fr. Abbass. When combined with the other mistakes that litter the report, it reads like a deliberate smear.

Yet Community Services Minister Denise Peterson-Rafuse, with the backing of the Dexter government, has refused to withdraw the report or apologize to the man it falsely accused. Her behaviour stands in marked contrast to the courage displayed by Sean McSween.

Authoritarian Superintendent of the Month — feedback

Golly, tons of reaction — on all sides — to cyber-libertarian Jeff Shallit’s nomination of South Shore District School Superintendent Pynch-Worthylake as “Authoritarian High School Superintendent of the Month.” (Apologies for the delayed posting; it’s been a busy week.)

Chris McCormick writes:

I figure someone’s right to express their opinion is balanced by my right to ignore them; the principal’s reaction just valorizes the ‘victim society’ where we want to whitewash all differences and offending symbols…remember Lenny Bruce [language NSFW]? “It’s the suppression of the word which gives it the power, the violence…”

Jeannie Eyking:

I have been aware of Superintendent Pynch-Worthylake’s work for about 10 years.  From everything I’ve heard, I understand her to be an intelligent, brave, and discerning professional and leader.  When I read your blog this morning, I thought there must be more to this story than first presented.  The editorial in the Cape Breton Post made the story more complete for me.   My conclusion is the her decision was not only reasonable, but brave.

The young people in our schools are arriving with all sorts of things written on their shirts, much of which promotes disrespect. What was written on Swinimer’s shirt was not benign. The phrasing is significant. “Life is wasted without Jesus”  is a judgment of what you should be and do, not an expression of what I choose for me.  This is no small point. Tolerance and free speech can only be protected, if we have the intelligence to sort out the difference.  The principal and Nancy Pynch-Worthylake tried to do that.  I applaud them both.

A reader whose family includes a retired Anglican minister, passed along antidote apparel depicted at right:

A reader who is not from the Annapolis Valley or Bridgewater writes:

It’s obvious Jeffrey Shallit does not live in the Annapolis Valley or Bridgewater, because if he did, he’d know that no matter how strongly you felt it, you’d never say anything like this: “Swinimer’s t-shirt expresses a moronic and wrong sentiment, and he sounds like the typical evangelical jerk who can’t keep quiet about his own ‘good news.’”  Because the fall-out from evangelicals, of which there are many who attend Baptist, Pentecostal, and break-away Protestant churches in the Bible Belt of Nova Scotia, would not be worth it. Shallit, safe from the wrath of God in Waterloo.

Reader Dana Doiron thinks the The Cape Breton Post got it right:

Proselytizing at school and suggesting that the international students at his school were damned (I spoke to students and parents) were the issue.  The t-shirt was just the most recent manifestation to which the complaining students could point. Parents, teachers and religious leaders (and, politicians) should help students learn tolerance and empathy not just the assertion of individual rights. The student’s dad may have taken the best step toward resolving this issue by removing his son from school today to go home and change shirts.

What Shallit was reacting to, given the information available at the time, was Swinimer’s suspension for the sin of wearing a T-shirt expressing minority religious views. If Swinimer was browbeating fellow students, or proselytizing disruptively on school time, that’s another matter. Wearing a slogan the superintendent doesn’t like is not grounds for dismissal in a democracy.


Our friend in Fredericton writes:

This morning my street was  crawling with Jehovah’s Witnesses: at least a half dozen pairs of women, making their way from house to house, all neatly attired in skirts of a certain style. Before long, two Witnesses landed on my doorstep, introduced themselves as Queenie and Muriel, and handed over copies of The Watchtower and Awake!

I’m well-known as a magazine addict, so after getting through the most pressing work of the day, I paused to flip through these publications. I was shocked to notice the circulation numbers: 42,182,000 copies in 194 languages for each issue of The Watchtower; 41,042,000 copies in 84 languages for each issue of Awake!

In disbelief, I turned to Wikipedia, which ranks these publications as the two most widely circulated magazines in the world. For comparison, assuming Wikipedia has its facts straight, the closest recognizable periodical on the list is the fifth-most widely circulated: The Reader’s Digest. It clocks in at a paltry 17 million copies per issue, in 21 languages. Third and fourth places belong to magazines published by the AARP – the American Association of Retired Persons. Both have circulations topping 23 million copies, in just one language: English…interesting enough in itself.

I’m left wondering what the distribution plan for Jehovah’s Witness publications looks like. Does it consist entirely of women in skirts going door-to-door for days and days on end?

I think being one of those Jehovah’s Witnesses who goes door-to-door takes guts. Huge guts. And I respect that. I’d say most of people they encounter are predisposed to respond negatively when Witnesses knock. You really have to believe in yourself, and what you’re saying, to keep going back for more, door after door, street after street, town after town. So I’ll always give the Jehovah’s Witnesses a moment of my time, even if I don’t invite them in for tea, or include my home address here.

Besides, they’ve got all of those free magazines. Like, a lot of free magazines.

Peterson-Rafuse passes the buck

Liberal MLA Kelly Regan put two questions to Community Services Minister Denise Peterson-Rafuse in the House of Assembly yesterday:

MS. KELLY REGAN:  Mr. Speaker, for 53 years Talbot House provided residential addiction treatment for men in Cape Breton. Talbot House recently, abruptly closed its doors and left the people of Cape Breton with a whole lot of questions. Will the Minister of Community Services lift the shroud of secrecy and tell the men and their families who rely on these services why the minister closed the doors and removed this vital service from this community?

HON. DENISE PETERSON-RAFUSE:  Mr. Speaker, we know that the recovery houses that we have throughout the province are vitally important and we have supported those. In fact, we were not responsible for closing it, so I would think the honourable member should get her information straight. Thank you.

MS. REGAN:  Mr. Speaker, it is the responsibility of this minister to ensure that her department can properly manage its programs and guarantee a continuity of service. People in Cape Breton are wondering what other local, accessible, comparable programs have been made available to men needing these services?

MS. PETERSON-RAFUSE:  Mr. Speaker, I would like to say that every person who was in that recovery house was well taken care of. They have a placement that they are satisfied with and the fact is that is another organization that is run by a board of directors. The board of directors made the decision, not Community Services.

In short, the closure of this valued treatment centre is not the minister’s problem, and really didn’t cause much harm anyway. See the happy residents, all “placed” elsewhere.

It would be hard to imagine a minister more deeply out of touch with sensibilities, sentiment, and history on the ground in the area affected by the bureaucracy she heads.

Shaming without evidence: readers respond

On Sunday, I questioned the sudden closure of the Talbot House Recovery Centre, and the treatment accorded it’s executive director, Fr. Paul Abbass, after a victim’s rights activist apparently passed along an unspecified third- or fourth-party complaint about Abbass to the Department of Community Services.

A sample of the responses follows, but please also see this clarification of my original post.

A reader writes:

I am a former resident of Talbot house and I am convinced the experience saved my life. At no time during my therapy did I witness any impropriety on the part of Paul Abbass or any staff member. Talbot House has been a place of healing for many, for many years.

Ed Murphy, retired director of the St. Francis Xavier Extension office in Sydney, writes:

I’ve known this guy a long time, and I’ve been a long-time admirer of the work of Talbot House. I’m so pissed about the way this has been handled. Thanks for doing something when the rest of us do nothing.

A former parishioner of St. Andrew’s Church, Boisdale, where Father Paul Abbass was the parish priest, writes from Ontario:

I am in total agreement with your article. Innocent till proven guilty… Everyone has a right to confront their accuser, and Fr. Abbass is no less entitled.

A Halifax resident who calls Beaver Cove home writes:

Although I did not have the opportunity to get to know him very well, people whose opinion I value speak very highly of him. Furthermore, based on my limited interaction with him, I, too, found him to be a good and spiritual person.

If Father Abbass is guilty of impropriety, particularly in light of the recent events in the diocese, then this is very alarming and the church in this area may be damaged beyond repair.

Furthermore, Father Abbass will have to take responsibility for his actions.

However, what worries me as much is: What happens if the allegations are not criminal and he is innocent? The people at the Department of Community Services and the Board at Talbot house will have to explain to the public and to the parishioners how they plan to put this genie back in the bottle.

Father Abbass has already been dealt with as if he is guilty, losing all positions of trust. While this is appropriate, it places a great deal of responsibility on those who are investigating the allegations. They must be expeditious yet diligent.

What worries me is that the department’s responsibility to be expeditious may not be considered important. If the allegations are ultimately unfounded, Father Abbass’s reputation will be none the less harmed. If so, I hope the press will demand that the department explain in clear terms why the investigation took as long as it has.

A former board member of Talbot House, whose son was treated there, writes:

My son spent the better part of a year there, continued his education, remains sober and works full time. He did all the work. Talbot House was the perfect supportive setting.

I sent Father Paul an email when I read about the allegations. I told him that I believe in him and all his goodness. I still do.

I was crushed to hear the place was closed so quickly. I don’t know why, and have not talked with any board members or staff. I wish this investigation would shed some light not only on the allegations, but on Talbot House’s effectiveness. I believe it will stand up to scrutiny.

Talbot House was designed around the belief that an addicted person can recover and rebuild a life.

That approach conflicts with other provincial facilities, which seem to be more about preventing harm to society than helping someone who is sick. That’s my biased view. And don’t get me started on the ridiculous policy of only opening the door to treatment if the sick person quits cigarettes too.

Questions should be asked about Talbot House’s premature demise. It happened too quickly and without explanation. Those questions aren’t likely to be asked by sick people who struggle to cope with recovery from addiction.

Teresa MacNeil, former Chair of the Cape Breton Development Corporation, Vice-Chair of Enterprise Cape Breton, and director of Extension at St. FX, writes:

Thank you for so clearly articulating the essential features of the shoddy treatment of one who deserves open and just treatment. Actually every accused person deserves that much.

I have been aware of Father Paul Abbass’s work over the years, especially when he was located in Antigonish and new Glasgow; always characterized by a high level of service, concern, dedication, commitment. It is entirely unacceptable to allow him to be quietly banished without open and just attention to the complaint that forced him to “step down.”

Thanks to all who wrote.



The shaming of Fr. Paul Abbass — a clarification

In my post about the Queen-of-Hearts treatment accorded Fr. Paul Abbass—sentence first, trial later—I wrote that the  Cape Breton Regional Police “said it had begun investigating allegations concerning a Talbot House employee.”

In fact, police spokesperson Desiree Vassallo chose her words more carefully than that.

“We are looking further into [information received from the Talbot House Board] and will determine whether there’s anything that needs a criminal investigation,” she said.

While Vassallo didn’t identify Abbass, everyone knew who she was talking about.

Almost seven weeks have passed since Vassallo made that statement. If the police have determined that the information does not warrant a criminal investigation, then in light of the personal cost to Abbass and the residents at Talbot House, they bear a heavy onus to acknowledge that the case is closed—or indeed, that it never opened.

The snow day debate continues

Too damned many.

In response to my note about the 40-something Norwegian who had never seen a snow day until he came to Nova Scotia, Contrarian reader Joyce Rankin of Mabou Westmount blames consolidation of schools and secularization of society for the proliferation of snow days. Her response sparked a lively email debate.

I remember we never used to have snow days either. But then again, we were close enough to school that we could walk.

The questions to ask, for a proper comparison, would be how far children in Norway travel to school, and how far people drive to work, and over what kind of roads? And if there’s not an official snow day, does that mean that everyone shows up? Or does it mean that those who can make it come and the place functions (or not) with a skeleton crew, accomplishing little.

You can drive in this.

All valid points. But it could also be there that Norwegians are just a little less timid about driving when there is half an inch of snow? We do have snow tires after all. This implies that driving on snow is something we do.

Why doesn’t Alberta have snow days? We have too many damn snow days. I hear it from everyone.

It’s not so much snow that’s the problem, but rather ice. In Alberta it tends to get cold and stay cold, and it is not as wet. Not so much temperature fluctuation and hence less ice. Plus in areas where it’s flatter and the roads are straighter, the driving is easier. (Note that the accident often happen at curves and hills.)

I’m not disagreeing that it gets a bit silly sometimes. But the school board is to blame, too, because the new procedure is for the board superintendent to make the call for the whole district, rather than the principal making it for each school. I guess they haven’t noticed the variation in weather from, say, Ingonish to Sydney River to Louisbourg, or from Pleasant Bay to Louisdale to Canso to Antigonish.

Plus it’s because of liability. Administration is afraid that someone will get hurt and they’ll get sued for making them come to work.

Birds do it. Squirrels do it. Even bright yellow buses do it.

I take your point about one-size fits all in boards that stretch over a huge territory. But I think the issue shows a problem with the way society handles small risks of terrible outcomes. We place policy makers in an invidious position. They might be criticized for over caution, but they would be savaged if a child is injured or killed. But life is not risk free.

This issue also dovetails with another bugaboo of mine: the fact that too many school system managers, up to and including superintendents, are in the teachers’ union. Unions should not be given the task of deciding when a day off is appropriate.

The bottom line is that we have far too many snow days in NS. We have snow days where there is barely any snow. We have snow days on days we would not have given a second thought 15 years ago. It has crept up on us, and it has gone too far.

I have driven long distances on bad roads to work, and I have worked in places where there’s a lot of pressure to be at work no matter what (and where you don’t get paid if you don’t come in).

It would be interesting to compare accident stats –was there a larger percentage of serious accidents and fatalities when people were more willing to drive on icy roads? I’m guessing yes.

Some wintry jurisdictions keep on bussin'.

While you’re at it, compare snow-day attendance at Nova Scotia ski hills compared to weekdays when schools remain open.

I think one of the results of secularization is that people value themselves and their physical well-being more than they used to. We expect to have control over our lives. We have less of the kind of humility that a) leaves it up to God or to fate, and b) views oneself as only one of many. We have learned to expect that we should be taken care of and insulated from risk. Most workplaces are much safer than they used to be, fewer people work outdoors, and there’s less call to be tough and resilient. (Which probably explains the rise of extreme sports -these are the people who in another century would have gone to sea or been a trapper or something.)

We expect things to be okay, we see it as an entitlement. And when something does go wrong, we want to blame it on someone. People in administration know this, and they don’t want to be the one blamed.

Dracula at Dalhousie: The mystery of the pilfered documents

Lauren Oostveen, Nova Scotia’s tweeting archivist, today unearthed a clipping from The 4th Estate, Halifax’s one-time alternative weekly, about a vampire conflab that took place at Dalhouse 39 years ago this month. The 4th Estate story is good, but the yarn Oostveen dug up to go with it is even better.

Organized by English Professor Devendra P. Varma, a renowned Dracula-lit buff, the goth-before-its-time conference boasted “the largest gathering of vampire experts ever presented in Canada,” and featured a screening of the classic 1931 movie Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi.

The Himalayan-born Varma, who died in 1994, was apparently quite a character. According to Oostveen, he “had a ten­dency to believe in con­spir­a­cies, secret police, and other forces” who, he believed, harboured an unsavoury interest in his collection of vampire books and memorabilia. At his insistence, “the really important stuff” was kept in a locked cabinet at the departmental library.

Time passes, [and] the library peri­od­i­cally asks about his use of their space, does he really need this secure storage, and so on. He says yes, and the cab­inet gets moved a few times as the library moves divi­sions and departments.

The Berlin wall falls, the world is more open, evil forces are in retreat, and Varma decides he can take home his trove of vam­pire doc­u­ments and literature.

He comes to the library with the one and only key, and of course, it’s an empty cabinet.”

Oostveen professes not to know who to blame for the pilferage: Abraham van Helsing or Dracula. I suspect Cletus Hollohan had a hand in it.

The real Jewish homeland

Hint: It’s closer than you think.

Jon Stewart reveals that Halifax is the real promised land. Best quote:

What’s wrong with you two? You can’t even get along in Nova Scotia. It’s the most polite part of Canada.

Watch it quick before the Comedy Channel yanks it from YouTube.

H/T: Andy Weissman

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