Post written with the collaboration of Adam Gorley, B.A. (Phil.)
On Tuesday, August 31, 2010, the Canadian Press reported that a Montreal man filed a motion for leave to bring a class action suit against the Community of the Clerics of St. Viateur in Montreal and the Raymond-Dewar Institute (also known as the Institute for the Deaf and Dumb) and its priests. Serge D’arcy claims to have been a victim of abuse by pedophile priests while attending the institute between 1967 and 1972.
The applicant is requesting authorization to bring an action for himself and all who were physically or sexually abused by any member of the religious group while residing at the institution.
D’arcy is requesting $600,000 for himself, but the total amount of the class action could amount to several hundreds of thousands of dollars for each victim, since it requires an amount of $100,000 as moral damages, plus amounts in compensation depending on the nature of the acts committed. The institute housed about 280 youth per year at the time.
It was only after learning that a friend was also a victim of sexual abuse by the teachers at the institute, and that there were several other victims of similar abuses, that D’arcy took these legal steps.
The documents filed before the Superior Court reveal details about the acts allegedly committed on at least two young boys who are deaf and dumb, which included fellatio, fondling and masturbation. The applicant claims he began to suffer physical and sexual abuse from members of the religious group who taught and worked at the centre about one year after his admission. The abuse continued between the ages of 9 and 15.
The applicant states in the documents that he “experiences a sense of fear, anguish and shame. He kept a big secret, well hidden, for fear of being judged, and not knowing how or whom to tell” [translated from French].
The applicant and his lawyer believe that because of the physical and sexual abuse, the applicant has undergone numerous direct consequences, disorders and damages that have completely disrupted his life, leading him to become an alcoholic and drug abuser for several years and to contemplate suicide on three occasions.
According to the claim, the institute did nothing to protect the vulnerable residents under its care from abuse by priests, and the organization deliberately concealed these abuses to protect the clergy and the organization’s reputation.
Well, I hope the applicant and any others who join the suit find some form of solace and closure, because these types of cases can drag through courts for years and add to the pain and shame felt by the victims.
On a grander scale… Claims of sexual abuse by priests are not isolated. Stories of abuse have circulated privately in society for ages. However, in the last several years, many claims have become public and made headlines in Canada and around the world. In the United States, 11,750 allegations of child sex abuse have so far featured in actions settled by archdioceses—in Los Angeles for $660 million and in Boston for $100 million. Some dioceses have gone into bankruptcy.
Some legal experts claim that a jurisdiction’s statute of limitations should prevail, and that in many cases it is too late to sue. But according to certain psychologists, it takes a long time for victims of abuse to come to terms with what happened to them, and even longer to be strong enough to face their abusers. Does that mean the victims’ “window” to see justice and protect future victims (because the abuses continue to this day) from the same horrible ordeal should close?
Some claimants want a higher level of accountability for the abuse: The Pope!
However, according to some lawyers, Pope Benedict XVI is immune from any lawsuits “as the head of a foreign state” (the Vatican). It seems in 2005, a test case in Texas failed because President Bush took up the Vatican’s cause and claimed sovereign (i.e., head of state) immunity on the pope’s behalf. Despite such claims, the international criminal court views the pope as a spiritual adviser, and not an immune sovereign.
Head of state immunity provides no protection for the pope in the international criminal court. The ICC Statute definition of a crime against humanity includes rape and sexual slavery and other similarly inhumane acts causing harm to mental or physical health, committed against civilians on a widespread or systematic scale, if condoned by a government or a de facto authority. … If acts of sexual abuse by priests are not isolated or sporadic, but part of a wide practice both known to and unpunished by their de facto authority then they fall within the temporal jurisdiction of the ICC—if that practice continued after July 2002, when the court was established.
The story of sexual and physical abuse at the hands of priests is sad for too many reasons, the main of which is the thousands of victims who had no say in the events that led to the abuse and who might never live normal lives. In Canada, Aboriginal children did not choose to attend church-run and government-funded residential schools, from which came countless stories of abuse. And parents involved with Catholic Church activities have trusted and continue to trust their spiritual leaders with their children, with sometimes devastating results.
The story is also sad because of the institutional apathy or secrecy that allowed the abuses to happen around the world. In Canada it was (and is) not only the Catholic or Protestant Church on its own, but also the federal government (in the case of the residential schools) that allowed these abuses to occur. Both the church and the government had some knowledge of the abuses taking place within their institutions as they were taking place, but both decided to ignore or hide them and essentially allow the abuse to continue.
But besides apologies, what kind of answer can anyone give for these irresponsible and inhumane actions?
Well, the Canadian government has tried offering money along with its apology to victims of abuse at residential schools, which seems to be the only way that large institutions understand how to make amends these days. The Pope also apologized for its part in the residential school abuses, and many have accepted that apology as genuine.
The Pope has also made apologies to other groups around the world for the abuses perpetrated by Catholic priests and other church employees over the years. And as mentioned, various dioceses around the world have made large settlements to groups in class action lawsuits.
And, of course, victims and their families usually look for criminal charges against the perpetrators or their employers or higher-ups. Numerous priests face jail time, and organizations have gone bankrupt, but no one has pinned anything on the Pope just yet. (In the case of the residential school system, the politicians and bureaucrats who were responsible for the program are no longer around.)
But do these gestures mean anything if the institutions offering them don’t change the conditions that caused the abuses in the first place? I mean, it’s all well and good to collect half a million dollars for abuses, but will that money prevent others from suffering abuse in the future? And sure you can put an abuser behind bars, but will that prevent others from committing the same abuses? Would it make a difference if the Pope were put in prison for his role in protecting abusive priests and employees of the church?
It might not, but a trial involving Pope Benedict and other church officials might expose information that could help victims understand better what was happening to them and their church—and possibly open up a path to organizational growth, moving past the scandals. But that doesn’t seem likely to happen. The Catholic Church is claiming diplomatic immunity, and besides, large institutions like the church, governments and corporation rarely face the same type of intense scrutiny before the courts that individual perpetrators do, and as a result, the whole story of such large-scale events rarely comes to light.
Should we be satisfied with these meagre portions of justice: imprisonment for individual perpetrators, grand apologies and cash settlements? Or do these acts just reinforce the status quo, without leading to any meaningful change? Does the law allow for justice beyond these common measures? Do we even know what sort of justice would satisfy victims of broad-based scandals? (And I think it’s fair to say that in a small way all Canadians are victims of events such as happened in the residential school system, since we all pay for the reparations, and many will lose trust in our government and other institutions.)
All I can say that justice is a work in progress, and while I fear we have reached an impasse in that work, I know there are many who continue to push for openness and truth. And through their efforts, we will increase our understanding of how victims relate to their victimizers, and how to heal harm their actions cause, and allow victims, victimizers and society as a whole to move on in trust.