Mary Ann Mulhern Tackles Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church

By WJ Hull

You can tell that a book of poetry is important when the hall in which it’s launched is packed to capacity ten minutes before the reading is even scheduled to start. On Thursday, April 10th, as many people as could fit in Katzman Lounge, the largest reading venue on the University of Windsor campus, were crammed together to witness the launch of ex-nun Mary Ann Mulhern’s groundbreaking anthology, “When Angels Weep”. Most listeners were forced to stand shoulder-to-shoulder for want of space—but every single one came away glad that they did.

When Angels Weep” is a collection of poems that outline the abuses of Father Charles Sylvestre, a priest who had been bounced around Southwestern Ontario, abusing little girls at every stop, moving whenever the local authorities became suspicious. He had been victimizing children for decades before finally being turned over to police. He was found guilty of 47 counts of sexual assault, spending his last few days in a jail cell, dying alone in prison.

The evening began with Irene Duchaine, the organizer of SNAP—the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests—addressing the audience, informing them of the severity of sexual abuse in the church. She spoke of how instances of abuse can destroy a child’s entire life. Irene then lauded Mary Ann Mulhern on her achievement with this book of poetry as well as her skill as a poet. Mary Ann’s sympathy and understanding towards the victims with which she had worked had been incredible, and, through “When Angels Weep”, Mary Ann demonstrated that, as Irene stated, she could “not only talk the talk, but also walk the walk.” Irene then led the audience in a moment of silence for those who had suffered sexual abuse at the hands of the clergy and had subsequently been led down a destructive path.

The second speaker was crown attorney Paul Bailey, the man who had prosecuted Father Charles Sylvestre and worked alongside Mary Ann Mulhern in the production of this anthology. He opened with a letter of good intentions from Hana Gartner, reporter for the Fifth Estate who hosted the award-winning episode about the Charles Sylvestre case, “The Good Father”, thanking Mary Ann for her work, congratulating Mary Ann on her achievement, and expressing her regret that she could not be present to deliver the message in-person. Paul then proceeded to laud the efforts of this project, observing that this project has done a tremendous service to the victims of sexual abuse everywhere, observing that the project has been ‘a unique partnership between the crown and an artist’, and observing how this book of poetry will do a great deal to remind the public of the dangers of sexual abuse for ages to come—that ‘Newspapers fade over time, but art endures.’

Finally, we were treated to a highly dramatic reading of the poems. Accompanied by Elise Gervais and Ellie Csepregi, Mary Ann delivered what we had all been waiting for. Between sets of poems, murmurs could be heard as the audience expressed their shock and disgust towards what Charles Sylvestre had done, as well as what the church had done to cover Sylvestre’s tracks. Mary Ann’s words were extremely potent, and the audience felt as though they were witnessing the horrible events. Many found it difficult to choke back sympathetic tears. The power of the words, as well as the reading, was extremely overwhelming.

Following the final poems, in which the word “Guilty” is echoed across a courtroom and Sylvestre’s victims finally find validation, Mary Ann and her co-readers were given a much-deserved standing ovation. (Though much of her audience was already standing—but those fortunate enough to have found a seat were more than happy to momentarily vacate in a demonstration of appreciation for what they had witnessed.)

When the crowd finally quieted down, Mary Ann extended her thanks and admiration towards the survivors of Sylvestre’s abuse. Two of them had been sitting front-row centre, and stood to give each other a supportive hug—a powerful gesture of compassion and inner-strength that merited its own thunderous applause. Mary Ann then thanked the class who had helped to produce the book—the entire project had been given to a team of dedicated students within a practicum course for the past year, and they had been responsible for all major editorial, design, production, and publication decisions (under the guidance of Black Moss co-owner and professor Marty Gervais).

After the event had finally begun to calm down and the numbers started to thin, University of Windsor bookstore manager Martin Deck relayed his awe of the event, stating that, in his ten years of selling books at literary events, this had been the largest poetry launch that he’d had the privilege of witnessing.

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