In the hardscrabble fishing villages of this remote island, the Rev. Kevin Bennett was "like a god. He was more important than a cop," and more feared than parents, recalled a former altar boy, who was one of his victims. Dozens of boys kept Bennett's secret as he ordered each into his bed to fondle and rape them.
Now, 16 years after the priest was publicly accused and sent to prison, a $10.5 million settlement reached last month over the sexual abuse claims of 39 former altar boys is causing the Catholic diocese here to prepare to put its churches, parish halls and priests' homes up for sale.
Catholic villagers across this huge, poor swath of western Newfoundland are learning the long reach of these priestly abuses, some committed decades ago. They might lose the tiny parish chapels and meeting halls where relatives and neighbors have long been christened, married, celebrated and buried.
"We always thought we owned the church," said Theresa LaCosta, 78, who lives down the hill from Our Lady of Fatima Church in Piccadilly, a cluster of poor homes with rich views of the emerald hills that plunge into St. George's Bay. She said her husband, now deceased, had badly hurt his back while helping to lay the church foundation. "He had to stop fishing because of it. Now they are going to take the church away?"
As more churches in the United States and Canada grapple with the aftermath of sex abuse claims, anguish similar to that of St. George's diocese might be felt by Catholics far and wide.
"This is a wake-up call for the entire church," said the Rev. Thomas Doyle, a Washington attorney who has counseled many victims and advised them on lawsuits against the church.
Doyle said the Newfoundland case could be "potentially devastating" for dioceses in the United States because Canada's Supreme Court ruled that the Newfoundland diocese owned all of its parishes' property. American dioceses are fighting against having parish churches and property included in settlements against local priests and officials.
"If I were a U.S. diocese, I would be very worried about the Newfoundland case," said Charles Zech, an expert on church finances and a faculty member at Villanova University outside Philadelphia. "All of the parishes are waiting for this issue to be settled."
Claims paid by U.S. dioceses total more than $1 billion, according to a study of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and recent large settlements in Boston, Kentucky and California. Three other dioceses have entered bankruptcy protection to satisfy sex-abuse claims.
"We don't have millions of dollars. This will be very difficult," said Bishop Douglas Crosby of St. George's Diocese. "But we need a just, fair settlement for the victims. This has been delayed too long."
Bennett's victims, now middle-aged, are still wrestling with the personal demons of abuse. One man, 31, whose identity is protected by a court order, paced nervously as he recounted the ruined life he still blames on the priest.
Beginning when he was 13, the man said, Bennett would summon him to his home and beckon him to come close. "It was, 'Wash my feet. Rub my belly. Rub my groin. Lay on my stomach,' " the man recounted. But even as he prepared to testify against the priest, he said, his own father insisted nothing had happened.
Last year the man tried to hang himself and ended up in a coma for eight days. He has never been able hold a job or maintain a relationship, he said. He recoils at any unexpected touch.
"I will never get over it," he said.
As a young priest in the 1960s, Bennett enticed altar boys by roaring around on a motorcycle, starting a Boy Scout troop and inviting them to his cabin to swim or ride a Skidoo, akin to a snowmobile. The boys did not tell their parents or guardians that he also took them into his bed.
"If I told my grandparents, who raised me, that I was being abused by the priest, they would have smacked me for lying," Randy Johnston, 48, the only victim publicly identified, said in a telephone interview from Labrador City, Newfoundland.
Church officials testified that they learned in 1979 that Bennett was abusing children, but their response was to transfer him to a more remote parish, St. Bernard's, where the list of his victims grew for another decade.
"The church just pushed the problem on," according to a 52-year-old Stephenville man whose identity is also protected by court order. He said he reported Bennett's abuse to other priests. The man went on to a successful business career and marriage, but he said the ordeal still haunts him.
"I think about it every day," he said. "And I never wanted to have kids because of it. That's my biggest regret."
The ugly secret finally spilled into the open in 1989. Bennett was arrested, pleaded guilty and served four years in prison. Meanwhile, Greg Stack, an attorney in St. John's, the Newfoundland provincial capital, filed suit on behalf of three dozen victims in 1991.
But the church "fought it all the way," Stack said, unsuccessfully appealing to the Supreme Court to avoid liability. Privately, church officials said lawyers for insurance companies dragged out the case. The diocese has yet to find out if -- and how much -- its insurers will pay.
Crosby, 55, came to Newfoundland in 2003, hoping to end the lawsuits hanging over the diocese. He offered the first public apology for the abuses, met with victims and spoke to the news media.
Now, he says, he will be scraping to find money for the settlement. He already has taken $1.4 million in savings -- earned from activities ranging from land investments to Sunday bake sales -- from the 19 parishes in his diocese. He hopes to raise an additional $4.5 million to save the larger churches and most active halls.
Still, Crosby estimates that 100 of 150 properties will have to be sold. Auctioning off the cemeteries "would be a bit much," he said. But his harbor-view office will go, and he has already sold the Bishop's House in the town of Corner Brook.
At Sunday services last month, priests read a letter from Crosby and a list of which properties the parishes would try to buy back from the diocese. In congregations strung along nearly 500 miles, stunned parishioners heard the fate of their churches. Some were relieved.
"We want to get it over with so we can start rebuilding," said the Rev. Maurice O'Quinn, whose church serves most of Stephenville, a tidy town of 8,000.
Others were furious.
"It went from shock to raw anger," said the Rev. Terry Boland, another parish priest.
Crosby admits the settlement is forcing him to make overdue decisions to close churches that already are emptying from declining populations and fewer, aging clergy.
In Piccadilly, Alice Walsh, 76, a nun who has presided for 12 years over bingo and baptisms for her community of 1,200. Walsh said she broke down as she read the properties to be sold: her church, the hall for catechism classes, even the convent house.
"They are devastated," Walsh said of members of her congregation. If the church closes, her parishioners will have to drive 20 minutes to the nearest church. But many are too poor to own a car or too old to drive.
Neil Tourout, 60, recalled that his father helped build the first church at Piccadilly out of plywood salvaged from a former U.S. military base at Stephenville.
"One man devoured everything," he said with disgust.
To the astonishment of some, that man -- Bennett, now 72 -- moved back to a small house near Stephenville after his prison term and began attending Mass. His victims encountered him in the supermarket. He never expressed remorse, they say. Bennett has given no interviews since his release.
But the possible loss of the churches has rekindled passions. There were rumors of threats to Bennett, of midnight prowlers banging on his door.
"It was a tough place for him to be, even dangerous," said O'Quinn. Last week, he said, Bennett finally left Newfoundland, leaving behind his church and his victims in turmoil. He declined to say where Bennett went.