12/14/2011 02:14 EST | Updated 02/13/2012 05:12 EST

Roman Catholic priest charged with 38 sex-related offences in Newfoundland

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - News that a Roman Catholic priest has been charged in western Newfoundland with dozens of sex-related offences over two decades shook the church Wednesday.

Rev. George Ansel Smith appeared in provincial court in Corner Brook in connection with alleged incidents between 1969 and 1989.

He faces 38 charges including several counts of gross indecency, sexual assault and indecent assault on a male.

The RCMP say the charges stem from a 16-month investigation and that Smith turned himself in to police.

Smith, who was suspended last year from his duties as a church administrator in Kinkora, P.E.I., is now retired.

He was released on conditions and is to appear in court on Feb. 23 for a plea.

Bishop Peter Hundt of the Diocese of Corner Brook and Labrador said news of the charges hit hard.

"It's always difficult and it brings a lot of emotions to the surface for everybody," he said in an interview.

Hundt said the diocese has co-operated with police and wants members of the public to help the RCMP with their investigation if they have information.

"Any allegation of improper conduct by a priest is an extremely serious matter," he said, reading from a statement.

"The diocese has developed extensive procedures to foster a safe environment for all the members of our faith community, and has also developed a clear policy and procedure for replying to allegations of sexual misconduct."

Hundt said church officials are especially mindful of the alleged victims in this case, the latest to rock an institution that has repeatedly grappled with sex abuse involving clergy.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with all those who have been affected by these events," he said.

Police would not release details on the ages of the alleged victims as a matter of confidentiality.

Smith has not worked in the Corner Brook region for more than 20 years, Hundt said.

Smith moved to P.E.I. in 1994 after working in Deer Lake, N.L., near Corner Brook, from 1986 to 1991. He had also worked in nearby parishes.

He was removed in May 2010 from his duties at St. Malachy's Church in Kinkora, P.E.I., after Bishop Richard Grecco got a call from the diocese of Corner Brook and Labrador about an abuse allegation.

Grecco said at the time that Smith was distraught but understood that a priest must leave the parish immediately after any allegation of abuse.