Pointing a Canon at the Catholic Church: How Civil Suits Against Pedophile Priests are Handled in Canada

Quebec has a love-hate relationship with its Catholic heritage. The province began as a settlement ripped from First Nations by Catholic France before the British took the colony. Quebec owes its first schools, public records, and health care and social welfare facilities to the Catholic Church who set them up at time when secular governments stayed out of them.

During the Duplessis era from the mid 1940s to late 1950s, the Church cooperated with the near dictatorial government to try and keep the people of Quebec obedient and unquestioning of authority. The Quiet Revolution that followed emptied the churches as French Canadians embraced women’s liberation, free sex, and the right to question even the Pope.

Though the province now claims to be aggressively secular (see Bill 62), it is determined to hold on to Catholic symbols such as the crucifix in the National Assembly and the tacky cross currently adorning Mount Royal in the name of glorifying a heritage that credits Quebec society solely – and incorrectly – to its white, Catholic, French-speaking founders.

As any place with Catholic roots, Quebec is not immune to the scandals erupting from the sexual abuses of children carried out by priests, nuns, and friars working in the province’s many schools. At the end of November, The Quebec Court of Appeal approved a class action lawsuit by the victims of sexual abuse who are suing Montreal’s Saint Joseph’s Oratory and the Province Canadienne de la Congregation de Sainte-Croix for the molestation they endured while attending schools the defendants operated.

This article will look at how our legal system handles civil suits against religious authorities accused of participating in sexual abuse and the St Joseph’s case in a little more detail.

Courts in Canada are generally sympathetic to the young victims of sexual assault by Catholic clergy.

In 2004’s John Doe v. Bennett, the Supreme Court dismissed the appeal of the Roman Catholic Episcopal Corporation of St. George’s in Newfoundland who had been found liable for the sexual abuse of boys by a priest operating under their authority for two decades. Though provinces have their own civil laws, the principles of this case are similar to such civil suits in Quebec.

In John Doe, the Church invoked in its defense the same defense it uses whenever it is accused of complicity in abuse cases by people acting under their authority: they claim that the bad apples were independent and that the Church had no power to control their actions. This has been used to explain their refusal to apologize for their role in the sexual abuse and cultural genocide of the residential school system, and to try and escape any liability for the rape and molestation of children by their clergy in schools they ran.

It is a defense that is generally rejected by the courts in these cases.

In 2014, the Quebec Superior Court in Tremblay v. Lavoie was asked to determine the liability of Lavoie, the Rédemptoristes Congregation, and the Collège Saint-Alphonse (formerly the Séminaire of Saint Alphonse). Tremblay had instituted a class action lawsuit against the congregation for its role in the sexual abuse of himself and other students by Lavoie and other priests while they attended the boarding school run by the Rédemptoristes.

In order to determine liability of the religious organization in cases of sexual abuse of minors by priests, the courts generally look at the following factors:

  • The relationship between the religious hierarchy named in the case and its clergy
  • Whether the religious hierarchy was aware of the behavior of the people in question – “did they display willful blindness and gross negligence akin to bad faith”
  • If aware, did they fail to take the necessary measures to halt the sexual abuse and prevent further incidents or did they simply conceal its existence?

In the case of Tremblay, the court found the congregation, school, and Lavoie liable on all fronts and ordered them to pay the victims a hefty sum. According to the legal decision, not only did the Rédemptoristes know of the ongoing abuses but, as their priests could not work in the schools without the permission of their superior, they failed in their responsibility to ensure that those chosen to do so would not abuse their power.

The St Joseph’s Oratory case was not a case to determine the liability of the congregation or its pedophile priests. The case was an appeal of a technical decision required in all class action lawsuits. In order to institute a class action lawsuit in Quebec, you need the authorization of the courts and the appointment of someone to lead the suit on the plaintiffs’ behalf.

The group named J.J. -one of many victims of sexual abuse by the Catholic clergy in charge of schools attended by J.J. and the other plaintiffs – as the representative plaintiff in the suit. The Superior Court agreed with St. Joseph’s and Ste. Croix who protested the class action suit and J.J. as representative, with claims including J.J’s desire to remain anonymous, the lack of evidence, and the notion that the delay to file a class action has expired. J.J and the other plaintiffs appealed the decision and won.

In their decision allowing the class action lawsuit, the Quebec Court of Appeal pointed out the reason for J.J’s desire to remain anonymous – namely the stigma and shame associated with the abuse he endured. The only factors that would interfere with him representing his fellow victims include a conflict of interest, own interest in pursuing the suit, and conflicts with the other plaintiffs.

The court refused to address whether the delay to file suit has expired, claiming that this is a defense reserved for their lawsuit itself and not for the authorization hearing. They also mentioned that there is a lot of information and case law that support the claims in the suit and allow more latitude to the plaintiffs in civil sexual assault cases involving the clergy.

The Catholic Church has a lot to atone for from persecuting women, gays, and non-Catholics, to protecting those guilty of raping children. As society becomes more intolerant of the worst behaviors of people claiming to act in God’s name, they and other organized religions need to do what’s needed to weed out the offenders and hold them accountable to the people they hurt. If not, then they deserve to be sued and forgotten.

* Featured image of Saint Joseph’s Oratory via WikiMedia Commons

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