Community Services Dept. vs. Talbot House

Exactly as many of us expected, the vague, shadowy accusations of sexual impropriety against Fr. Paul Abbass have proven false.

The Cape Breton Regional Police announced late Friday that the department has completed its review of information in the case — they were cagey about who was being investigated, but everyone knows it was Abbass — and they will not proceed with a criminal investigation. There was nothing to investigate.

I hope Fr. Paul Abbass will have the generosity of spirit to resume his duties as Executive Director of Talbot House, the community-built recovery center that has for 53 years successfully treated men addicted to alcohol, drugs, and gambling, and where Abbass served ably and generously for 17 13 years.

But that’s a pretty tall order. Just consider the toll the allegations have taken.

For eight weeks, the falsely accused priest suffered his public humiliation in quiet dignity. He was forced to step down from his post as Executive Director of Talbot House, and stripped of his duties as Vicar General, spokesman for the Antigonish Diocese, and pastor to four rural Cape Breton parishes.

From that litany of jobs, anyone can see Abbass was an exceptionally busy man. While running Talbot House and ministering to four congregations, he handled the unenviable task of speaking for the church after Bishop Lahey was arrested for possessing child pornography, and while church property was liquidated to pay for its settlement with abuse victims.

Abbass was guilty of nothing more than resisting the bureaucratic niceties demanded by Department of Community Services bureaucrats who don’t like Talbot’s recovery model of care, and who moved aggressively during Abbass’s eight-week ordeal to ensure the centre never reopens.

As it became apparent that the initial allegation of gross misconduct was a non-starter, the DCS official handling the file scrambled to find some rationale for the department’s overreach in this disgraceful episode. Last week, Marika Lathem produced a report that refocused the department’s gunsights from Abbass to the Talbot board of directors, whose governance it criticized.

Lathem’s self-serving report should have no more credibility than the dubious allegation she originally brought forward and promoted with reckless disregard for the consequences.

Over four decades of living in Cape Breton, I have heard nothing but admiration for Talbot House and praise for its work. As for the bureaucratic niceties DCS cherishes, many if not most care-giving organizations in Nova Scotia are struggling to implement the litany of policies, job descriptions, and performance appraisals currently in vogue among public administration wonks. They do so, it might be added, without financial or administrative support from DCS.

For decades, the NDP has challenged the unfeeling policies of this backward department. Now it’s time for the Dexter Government to put those ideals into practice:

Remove the discredited Lathem from any role in the affairs of Talbot House, and withdraw her report.

Appoint someone independent of the department to assist the Talbot Board in the onerous task of undoing the damage caused by the department’s misguided actions, with a budget sufficient to the task.

Undertake a searching, top-to-bottom review of Community Services by someone with no connection to the department. Someone who will actually listens to the men, women, and caregivers who suffer under its inept administration. Someone who will help implement the vision — so long championed by the NDP — of respectful support for those Nova Scotians most in need.