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Canadian priest volunteers to be incarcerated rather than leave inmates

With the federal prison system shutting down all visits, a Catholic priest has volunteered to be incarcerated rather than leave inmates without spiritual care.

“He offered to go there and live in the institution 24-7,” said Bishop Gary Gordon of Victoria, British Columbia. “For a bishop to hear that from a priest, you say ‘OK, this is what it’s all about. This is the vocation — lay it on the line.’ It’s really beautiful.”

As COVID-19 infections begin to emerge in prisons, spiritual care for inmates has dwindled amid growing anxiety over the dangers faced by inmates and prison staff alike.

Bishop Gordon, who is the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops’ representative for prison ministry, said the priest who volunteered to remain with inmates has a deep and long commitment to prison ministry. For privacy reasons, he would not divulge the name or location of the priest to The Catholic Register, Canadian Catholic weekly based in Toronto.

As the official Canadian bishops’ liaison with Corrections Canada, Bishop Gordon hopes to persuade federal officials not to completely cut off prisoners from their chaplains.

“If someone is gravely ill, then the priest should be allowed to bring them the holy anointing of the sick and viaticum,” he said.

The situation inside jails can be very dangerous, said Bonnie Weppler, executive director of the Church Council on Justice and Corrections. She compares the spread of COVID-19 in prisons to how it can spread in long-term care homes and cruise ships.

“What would you expect to happen? The same as you see happening in seniors’ homes. If one person gets it, a whole bunch are going to get it,” Weppler said.

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair directed Correctional Services Canada and the Parole Board of Canada to find ways to thin out prison populations through early release.

Ontario is also “proactively performing a review for all inmates to determine eligibility for early release,” Kristy Denette, solicitor general’s office spokeswoman, told The Catholic Register.

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