Top Court Stays out of Church Sex Scandal
But Supreme Court Rules That Altar Boys Can Sue Local Diocese, Plus Priest

Canadian Press, carried in Toronto Star [Toronto, Ontario]
Downloaded March 25, 2004

OTTAWA - Three dozen former altar boys sexually abused by a Newfoundland priest can sue the local Roman Catholic diocese as well as the man who assaulted them, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled today.

But the judgment failed to settle another question with far more sweeping legal ramifications - whether the church as a whole can be held liable for such wrongdoing.

Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, writing for a unanimous nine-member bench, said the contending parties simply hadn't presented enough facts to resolve that issue.

"The record before us is too weak to permit the court . . . to responsibly embark on the important and difficult question of whether the Roman Catholic Church can be held liable," wrote McLachlin.

Whether an entire religious denomination can be sued is a key issue in thousands of abuse claims by former aboriginal students at church-run residential schools.

Lawyers for those claimants, as well as for the federal government, had hoped the ruling in the Newfoundland case would clarify things.

Instead it left the decision for another day.

At issue today was a series of sexual assaults committed by Father Kevin Bennett during nearly three decades, beginning in the 1960s.

Bennett admitted his guilt and was sentenced to four years in prison in the early 1990s. Now retired and in his 70s, he continues to draw a church pension.

His 36 victims launched a civil suit in 1991, claiming damages from Bennett, some of his church superiors, the western Newfoundland diocese of St. George's and the church as a whole.

A trial judge ruled that legal liability extended to Bennett, Bishop Raymond Lahey, former St. John's archbishop Alphonsus Penney and the diocese of St. George's - but not to the entire church.

The Newfoundland Court of Appeal upheld the liability of Bennett and the diocese, but cleared Lahey, Penney and the overall church.

In its ruling today, the Supreme Court agreed that Bennett and St. George's can be sued, although its legal reasoning differed somewhat from the provincial appeal court.

It also absolved Lahey and Penney.

Unlike many other denominations, which are incorporated nationally, the Catholic Church in Canada is legally incorporated only at the diocese level and has traditionally enjoyed immunity from lawsuits.

That arrangement has complicated efforts to reach legal settlements for victims of sexual abuse at aboriginal schools - in part by drastically curtailing the amount of money that can be claimed.

Victims who have to collect from a single priest, or at best from a diocese, are likely to win much smaller damage awards than if they could sue the entire church, with its millions of members and far-flung assets.

The federal government, which would likely be left on the hook if the church is immune in aboriginal damage claims, intervened in the Bennett case to argue against continued church immunity.

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops argued for sticking to the traditional rules.