By Janice Tibbetts (National Post, May 16, 2007)

OTTAWA – A Catholic organization is accusing the CBC of blasphemy over a pilot program that portrays altar boys as drug users and the Catholic communion host as “munchable snack food, possible poker chips and a repository for drops of LSD.”

“Catholics should not have to pay for shows where their most sacred rituals and images are considered a starting point for dramatic licence,” said the Catholic Civil Rights League, which intends to lodge a formal complaint today with the CBC for airing The Altar Boy Gang.

“With this program, the CBC has moved into the area of blasphemy of sacred rituals.”

The Toronto-based Catholic rights group says the CBC is guilty of a “double standard” by lacking sensitivity about the country’s most dominant religion, while it hired a Muslim Canadian consultant last year to ensure that Islamic practices were respected in the program Little Mosque on the Prairie.

Two 30-minute pilot shows of The Altar Boy Gang, produced by Sienna Films of Toronto, aired last Friday with the help of more than $600,000 in funding from the Canadian Television Fund, which supports the production of distinctively Canadian TV programs.

Under Canadian Television Fund rules, the CBC makes its own decisions on how to spend money provided by the fund, which is both publicly and privately sponsored, said MaryBeth McKenzie, the CTF communications director.

The CBC Web site describes The Altar Boy Gang as a show about “teenage boys who use their ‘vocation’ as altar boys to be bad.”

Jeff Keay, a CBC spokesman, said yesterday the show will not become a CBC series. But he said he thought the premise of the pilot shows did not cross the line.

“Part of trying to produce compelling programming is to not be afraid of images that someone could find disturbing and I think this, while some people could have found it offensive, it falls within the realm of reasonable,” Mr. Keay said.

“We certainly intend no disrespect of the Catholic Church or any other religious organization.”

He said the network has received no other complaints about the shows. Joanne McGarry, the civil rights league’s executive director, said she watched the two pilots and “personally, the part where I cringed the most, was the desecration of the host.”

She said she intended to send a formal complaint to Robert Rabinovitch, president of the CBC. “We think the religious faith of all Canadians should be respected in our programming,” Ms. McGarry said.

“The Holy Eucharist and the Sacrament of Reconciliation are sacraments of the Catholic Church, held sacred to Catholics throughout the world and respected in the spirit of religious freedom by almost all Canadians.”

Ms. McGarry described The Altar Boy Gang as a show “about a group of altar servers who apparently use their role in the parish to facilitate an entry into the drug trade. At various points in the program, the Communion host is depicted as munchable snack food, possible poker chips and a repository for drops of LSD. Drug-laced hosts are left in the confessional for pick-up.”

The Altar Boy Gang featured Newfoundland actor Andy Jones, formerly of the comedy troupe CODCO, as Father Sand. Mr. Jones left the CODCO show in 1990 to protest the CBC’s refusal to air his sketch “Pleasant Irish Priests in Conversation.”

The producer of The Altar Boy Gang, Jennifer Kawaja, was unavailable for comment.

© National Post 2007