The Anglican Church should never have sent William Presnail to Waswanipi to be the community’s priest, say residents of two Lower North Shore villages where Presnail was rector for nine years.
Presnail, 45, was charged April 28 with sexually assaulting a minor – a 16-year-old boy – in Chapais. Presnail has pled not guilty.
He was Waswanipi’s Anglican priest for a little under a year until being removed from the job after complaints from residents about his personality and style.
The same type of complaints about his style got Presnail removed from his previous priestly posting in the Lower North Shore. Residents said they were surprised the church had assigned Presnail to another parish after the problems they had experienced.
Presnail was never charged with any sexual offenses stemming from his time in the Lower North Shore.
But many people thought he was “very arrogant” and “didn’t get along very well with his parishioners,” said Lionel Roberts, mayor of Bonne Espérance, a municipality that covers three tiny fishing villages in eastern Quebec.
Presnail was the priest in two of the villages – St. Paul’s River and Old Fort Bay.
“When I heard he was put in a northern community, it struck me right away: why did they let him go there?” said Roberts.
“Most of the people were disgusted with his behaviour in the community,” he said. “Quite frankly, we didn’t want him around.”
Presnail was eventually removed from his job in Bonne Espérance by Bishop Bruce Stavert of the local Duplessis diocese. After he was removed, Presnail refused to leave the area, staying on to coach a boys’ hockey team. He also ran for mayor against Roberts – a race that Roberts won by a 2-1 margin.
Roberts said local residents complained to the Anglican church for two years about Presnail before he was finally removed.
Bishop Stavert acknowledged that Presnail “was not necessaily popular with everybody,” but he denied that Presnail left his old parish in difficult circumstances.
“It was a very isolated parish. He needed a change of scenery. He wasn’t laid off or fired,” Stavert said.
But an Anglican parish member in St. Paul’s River (population 400) said the bishop “took a long time” to get Presnail out. She said Presnail should have never gotten another posting in a remote community.
“We didn’t think anybody should go through what we went through. We didn’t agree with the posting (to Waswanipi),” said the parishioner, who asked for anonymity because she feared being harassed.
“If he had been put in a big city, someone would have been able to keep an eye on him. The worst scenario was what he was put back into. People should have been more aware.”
A resident of Old Fort Bay – population 300 – described Presnail as an “intelligent, loud and persuasive” man who got a lot of people to go to church for the first time.
But Presnail had another side too, she claimed. “Looking back, I wonder if it was all a fake performance or real. He was really rude sometimes. We had to ask him to leave because he was causing quite a stir.”
She said that, because of Presnail’s style,
many parents didn’t like him hanging around with their kids as much as he did.
Bishop Caleb Lawrence of the Moosonee diocese, which covers Waswanipi, is the man who brought Presnail to a Cree community. Lawrence said he checked Presnail out with other priests and the police before sending him to Waswanipi.
“My understanding was he had had a difficult ministry, but he had received some help,” Lawrence said. He explained the difficulties in Bonne Espérance as related to “isolation” and “the distress of the death of a close family member.”
Lawrence said he asked Presnail to resign as rector in Waswanipi in Feb. 1998 after community complaints about his “standard of performance.” He said the complaints were not related to sexually inappropriate behaviour.
Lawrence said Presnail had concentrated too much of his time on coaching a boys’ hockey team, the Hawks. Presnail was also criticized for swearing in front of kids and “severe verbal altercations with members of the community,” Lawrence said.
Waswanipi’s chief of police, Tommy Grant, said the Sûreté du Québec major-crimes unit planned to visit the community to interview other potential sexual-assault victims.
Grant also said Presnail is facing another charge dating from the spring of 1998 of refusing to take a breathalyzer test, after a Waswanipi police officer spotted him driving erratically. Grant said Presnail appeared to be under the influence of alcohol.
Presnail couldn’t be reached for comment.