Landmark settlement between church and sex-abuse victims approved in Quebec

MONTREAL – A judge has signed off on a landmark agreement to compensate victims of sex abuse that occurred for decades within a Roman Catholic organization in Quebec.

While walking away from news crews outside the courtroom, one victim said the grieving could finally begin.

The $18-million mediated settlement, the largest in Quebec and one lawyers have said could even be the largest ever in Canada, was officially enacted as Quebec Superior Court Justice Claude Auclair signed the agreement Wednesday.

But there were no cheers as Auclair signed the document — only silence as a five-year legal odyssey came to a close.

Victims will be paid by July 24 and will be awarded an indemnity ranging from $10,000 and $250,000, depending on the type of abuse they endured at three Quebec institutions. The agreement stems from an out-of-court mediated settlement, spurred by the threat of a class-action lawsuit.

Victims are still angry that many of the 223 claimants were forced to make their case before adjudicators and describe the abuse they faced.

The class-action lawsuit was formally launched in 2008 and a settlement was reached in October 2011.

The rest of the legal wrangling took nearly 18 months and lawyers lamented the slow process of finalizing the deal. One lawyer said more than half the claims — 126 out of 206 — went before an adjudicator.

“The process should have taken three months and it took 15,” said Alain Arsenault, one of the lawyers that represented the victims. He accused lawyers for the congregation of using stalling tactics and citing prior criminal history.

“They contested with no proof but they contested all the same,” Arsenault fumed. “They deposited documents that had nothing to do with the abuse … but they never brought any proof to deny the claims except in one case.”

The Congregation of Holy Cross issued a release expressing condolences for decades of abuse at three Quebec institutions that are now defunct — Montreal’s College Notre-Dame between 1950 and 2001; College Saint-Cesaire, located south of Montreal, between 1950 and 1991; and Ecole Notre Dame in the Lower St. Lawrence region, between 1959 and 1964.

Jean-Pierre Aumont, the Canadian provincial superior of the congregation, apologized again on Wednesday “for the suffering caused by the teachers and staff who held a position of trust and authority with students, and my deepest sympathy to the victims of such abuse.”

“Such actions should never have happened,” he said in a statement.

Victims hope the agreement will lead to other ones in Quebec and elsewhere for sex-abuse victims from other congregations. They hope other diocese and religious orders might also settle and avoid lengthy legal battles in the future.

Sebastien Richard, a spokesman for the victims, said they had a message for other groups: “Keep fighting.”

In the end 206 victims, and in some cases their parents, will wind up sharing nearly $13 million.

The other $5 million will go to lawyers’ fees, adjudicators’ honorariums, and other expenses.

Seventeen people’s claims have not been accepted.

One of the victims’ lawyers, Gilles Gareau, accused the religious order’s lawyers of abusing the adjudicator process.

It meant having to recount in detail all of the crimes committed against them, said Gareau. He cited the case of one man, now 72, who had to describe horrific acts in front of six people.

“It’s not an easy thing — I had to prepare him judicially and psychologically and I had to pick up the pieces after the hearing,” Gareau said.

“I had to escort one of them because I was afraid he was going to kill himself on the way out.”

Arsenault said he was satisfied but concerned about the impact on the victims. The settlement was designed to avoid having them relive their experiences.

“(There were) those who had to go before an adjudicator … and explain in detail the nature of the abuse to strangers when there was no one to contradict their claims,” said Arsenault.

He estimated that 97 per cent of the cases that went before an adjudicator were accepted.

Holy Cross’ Aumont had already apologized once in a video posted in 2011. On Wednesday, a statement sent via a public-relations firm expressed hope for a brighter future for victims.

“The damage has been done, and we were committed to act diligently to repair it,” Aumont said. “We hope that the (agreement) helps the victims make a fresh start, that they heal as best they can from the injuries they suffered and can work wholeheartedly toward their future.”

A lawyer for the congregation said the adjudication step was designed to give equal treatment to all victims in a reasonable time frame.

“The indemnification process is finalized and at this stage the Holy Cross congregation hopes that the victims will be able to go on with their lives,” said lawyer Eric Simard.

Richard said the money may not help some victims, who have been overwhelmed by the psychological scars.

Others have committed suicide. Many never came forward.

“It’s clear the 206 people we’re talking about is a sad minority of the total number of victims,” Richard said. “There were 40 aggressors identified by the victims and five of them are still alive today.”

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