Brothers Stand Accused

By Sue Montgomery
Montreal Gazette
December 6, 2008 id=23be8068-8c1f-4e77-84bd-55a8f09e4850

It was a betrayal like no other. René Cornellier Sr., now 75, thought the thousands of dollars he spent on tuition every year from 1972 to 1976 for his son's education at Montreal's prestigious Collège Notre Dame would be well worth it - until he recently was shown a letter his youngest son, René, wrote before dying of AIDS in 1994, detailing the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of four religious brothers beginning when he was just 12 years old.

"I entrusted my children to an institution that in theory, at least, had a good reputation, but that clearly wasn't deserved," he said in an interview, stressing the grief and guilt he feels for having unknowingly put his son in harm's way.

A nighttime view looking toward the dome of St. Joseph's Oratory, which is owned and operated by the Brothers of Holy Cross.
Photo by John Kenney

His son had gone to a school authority to report the abuse while he was still a student, but nothing was done. A Gazette investigation shows he was not alone. Other young men have come forward, during their youth or much later, to report abuse by Les Frères de Ste. Croix (Holy Cross brothers) at Collège Notre Dame, at a Holy Cross school in Ontario, at a Montreal halfway house run by the brothers, and within a family circle.

Most of the abuse in the cases uncovered by The Gazette took place in the 1970s.

Some victims were persuaded to keep quiet, but in at least three cases that silence was bought - for as much as $250,000. A source close to the Holy Cross order estimates that in the past 20 years, half a million dollars was paid out to sexual abuse victims, half of which came from Collège Notre Dame funds.

The brothers have deep roots in Quebec - they started and own the college, as well as other schools, and own and operate St. Joseph's Oratory, the great domed church on Queen Mary Rd. that can be seen from much of the city.

The college was founded by the brothers in 1869 as a private boys high school that took in boarders, but the last brother to teach there left in 1997. The last director of the school to come from the order died in 2003. Today, it is a private co-ed high school with 1,600 students and the only two brothers still on the payroll work in maintenance and audio-visual. The order still has a strong presence on the board of directors and its director, Yvon Lafrenière, is a layperson who has worked for many years at the college.

- - -

When René Cornellier Sr.'s wife died of breast cancer in 1967 at the age of 35, he sent Manon, Robert and their brother René, who was just 8 at the time, off to boarding school, where he believed they would receive more nurturing than he could give as a single parent.

René, the middle child, still fragile and vulnerable after the loss of his beloved mother, soon followed in his older brother's footsteps and attended Collège Notre Dame. The gothic, four-storey building standing in the shadow of St. Joseph's Oratory was known for its music program, as well as its science and sports activities. It was one of the first schools in the province to be equipped with a swimming pool and gym.

No one in the family had any inkling of what René had endured there. Robert, four years ahead of René at Collège Notre Dame, had heard stories of abuse, but never experienced any himself.

"He kind of seemed a bit lost in the world and couldn't find his way," their father said of René, who travelled the world and never really found his niche in life. "Now it's clear he was marked by that experience."

In his first letter to the school detailing what he'd allegedly endured, written from France in February 1993 and addressed simply to "the concerned authorities," René Cornellier Jr. alluded to a plan he and other students came up with in the 1970s to make their abuse public, but he said they were warned to keep it quiet by then director of educational services Brother Charles E. Smith.

"In this era, threats were effective," Cornellier wrote. "I know that the college was made aware of the problem a number of times, but silence was always maintained regardless of the cost.

"I think it's time that college authorities stop sticking their heads in the sand, either by sending recalcitrant brothers to the Third World, with results you're well aware of, or letting the years pass (scarring the affected children) or in handing out precious sums of money to shield the guilty."

One student who wanted to go public at the time with Cornellier later committed suicide in CEgep because of what he had experienced at Collège Notre Dame, according to a friend Cornellier lived with before his death in 1994. Another was killed in Mexico during an alleged botched drug deal.

After his first letter went unanswered by the college, Cornellier wrote a second months later and addressed it directly to Smith and the school's board of directors. He said he interpreted the lack of response as the college choosing to keep its eyes closed about abuse taking place with impunity over the years - a view that he said was confirmed when he learned Smith had recently been named general director of the college as well as president of its board of directors. Lafrenière, the college's current director, was director of educational services under Smith.

While those who abused Cornellier were now either retired or dead, he said he worried about current or future students whose parents went to great expense and sacrifice ("like my own") to entrust their children to the college.

Finally, in a third letter to provincial superior Raymond Lamontagne, the order's top religious brother in the province, Cornellier wrote that he was disturbed that Smith was the only one who wrote back to him and offered to speak to him "either out of compassion or fear," but Cornellier said he wouldn't accept the offer to talk, since it didn't come from the board. In his letter to Smith, Cornellier said he had no intention of suing his abusers "because no amount of money could repair the damage done, and my silence is not for sale."

In one of two letters he wrote to Cornellier in August 1993, Smith said he was anxious to speak with the former student, for their "mutual benefit and understanding."

Eventually, in about 1994, a committee was set up by the college at the request of the provincial superior to establish a policy to deal with sexual abuse and Smith was appointed chairman.

Approached this week at Le Grand St. Joseph, a large brothers' retirement home with a wrap-around porch in Chomedey, Smith was adamant that he had no recollection of Cornellier or any other allegations of sexual abuse while he was director at the college.

"I have no comment on those problems, if there were problems," he said, when asked about a $250,000 payout to a former student, the agreement for which was signed by Smith himself. Nor did he remember receiving letters from or writing letters to René Cornellier: "I have no memory of that. I'm not aware of that."

He referred all questions to the provincial superior, Father Jean-Pierre Aumont.

"I can assure you that the Congregation of Holy Cross acts with diligence and deals seriously with situations brought to our attention in which one of its members or employees has acted improperly," Aumont wrote in an email this week to The Gazette. "We have taken necessary steps and co-operated with authorities in the past when made aware of such situations."

Aumont said the order has been the target of intimidation and blackmail by a religious brother who recently left the Brothers of Holy Cross and who wasn't happy with the financial package he negotiated before his departure.

But documents obtained by The Gazette and interviews with victims and sources close to the order suggest that Brothers of Holy Cross wished to keep their alleged misdeeds quiet at all costs.

In 1978, a couple of years after Cornellier graduated, a boy whose name can't be published began high school at Collège Notre Dame. In his second year one of the brothers began showing him special attention, which led to sexual touching and oral sex. The pattern of sexual encounters continued over the student's high school years and beyond.

Reached at the order's Laval retirement home, Brother Olivain Leblanc responded curtly to Gazette queries about the abuse.

"It's all been dealt with and I'm not talking about it," he said, before hanging up.

The decision to make the payoff of $250,000 to this student, which appeared on the college's balance sheet as "payment for professional services," was made by Smith on Oct. 15, 1993, infuriating a layperson who had knowledge of the financial operations of the brothers and also had the power to sign cheques for the administration of the religious province.

"It should have been the congregation (the order) that paid," he said, pointing out that the college receives government subsidies of about $5 million annually. "You can't use the college's money to pay for what happened with one of the brothers."

Smith ordered the payout, despite instructions to the contrary from his superiors and despite the harm such a move could cause the order and college should it ever become public. Registration, which was to begin the same week the agreement was reached, might have also been affected had the news got out, those close to the order say.

In the fall of 1977, a year after Cornellier had graduated, another student, who did not want his name used in this story, said he approached Smith and told him about abuse he had experienced the previous school year.

"I remember he listened to me very attentively, and as soon as I finished, he thanked me and said I showed a lot of maturity," said the student, now 45 and married with children. "Then he asked me to be discreet.

"It was clear to me he didn't want me to do anything that would tarnish the reputation of the school."

Years later, in 1992, when the student's wife was pregnant with their first child, he once again approached Smith and said he wanted to speak to his abuser, and perhaps get an apology from him.

"He told me to put it behind me, and that I would never get what I wanted from (the abuser)," the former student said. "He said the man is sick psychologically and that the order was seeing that he was getting therapy."

Still not satisfied, the former student finally went to the police, who managed to dig up two other alleged victims of the same brother.

"When my son was born, I told him that when you see wrongdoing, you have to speak up," he said in an interview. "I couldn't ask him to do something without doing it myself."

There were more allegations of sexual abuse as the Brothers of Holy Cross silently wrung their hands about how best to keep the misconduct of some of their members quiet and in turn, protect not only their name, but the millions of dollars in the order's coffers. Often, when a religious brother was found to be a problem, he was moved, either to another province, to the United States for brief psychiatric therapy or to a mission in the Third World.

Most of the victims' allegations went nowhere. One brother was charged and acquitted in 2006 by Quebec Court Judge Rolande Matte because she said she could not find Brother Claude Hurtubise guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

"There is nothing in the evidence to explain why three young boys who've become men, who don't know one another, for whom the only common denominator is that they had Claude Hurtubise as a teacher, are accusing him of committing indecent acts on them," she wrote. Hurtubise was also one of the brothers named by Cornellier as abusing him.

At the time of the abuse, the former student said, he told his mother, who was an actress, struggling to raise two sons on her own after their father left when the youngest child was just four.

"I was only 14 when I told her and my mother wasn't psychologically strong enough for that," he said. "She cried, that's all. She didn't know what else to do."

Hurtubise had no comment when contacted by The Gazette this week.

In 2004 email to one of the provincial councillors, the superior general in Rome, Father Hugh Cleary, wrote about abuse cases: "They are part of the human condition. They always have to be treated with delicacy and directness for the good of everyone concerned, particularly those who have been abused but also for the good of the perpetrator. They have their pain and human needs, too. ...

"I checked the files here and there is nothing serious about any cases regarding (Claude Hurtubise). There are other cases that were sent to (a brother) but no names are given. In that sense the files are clean and won't be an issue for any court hearings."

In 1996, Smith was replaced by Brother Raymond Lamontagne as director of the college. Lamontagne hired assistant director Jocelyn Morin on a five-year contract to "bring order" to the college. A layperson with experience in teaching and union organization, Morin had worked in the 1990s at another of the brothers' schools, Collège St. Césaire, southeast of Montreal.

In a recent interview at a St. Lambert café, Morin said he arrived at a school, now co-ed and no longer housing boarders, in freefall. Enrolment had fallen from a high of 1,250 students to 975 and Collège Notre Dame had a deficit of $1 million.

During his term, he built a surplus of $1 million. Morin also discovered some brothers were downloading hardcore kiddie porn and he put an end to it, and dismissed a brother in 1997 for groping a female student. The father of the student threatened to sue, but agreed not to if the brother was fired.

"The pedagogical department let me know that this type of complaint wasn't new when it came to Brother (Michel) Gauthier," Morin wrote in a memo for the file. The order then sent Gauthier for therapy in the United States.

"When he returned to Quebec, I warned him that he was not to do anything at the school that involved contact with students," Morin wrote.

"Knowing what I know now," he said, "I should have gone to the police. But I thought the community would clean themselves up. I was convinced, because they told me that if I had proof (of abuse), they would deal with it.

"It was all seen as normal by the brothers, which is even worse. It's like the Duplessis orphans or how we treated natives. It's disgusting. Is it normal to abuse a child? It's never been normal."

Vincent Grégoire, secretary general of Collège Notre Dame, said Lafrenière knew nothing about the $250,000 settlement made to the student, nor had he heard of any other cases of abuse at the school. He said Lafrenière dismissed Hurtubise, who was back on the school's payroll in 2003, when he became director in 2004. Grégoire, who was a student at the same time as Cornellier but didn't know him, said he never heard about abuse at the college.

"I wasn't a victim, nor were any of my friends victims," he said.

Collège Notre Dame was founded by the brothers in 1869 with 24 students and was a boarding school exclusively for boys.

Today it has 1,600 students, None of the teachers are brothers. Michel Gauthier was the last brother to teach there, and he was fired in 1997 for sexually touching a female student.

The school is subsidized by the government, according to the number of students it has each year. In 2003-2004, for example, it received $3,421 for each of the 1,599 students enrolled, for a total of $5.5 million.

Up until the 1960s, more than 70 brothers lived in the school, which took in boarders until 1990. From its founding to the '80s, it was an exclusively male place, except for a few female teachers. When a brother retired, he was replaced by a layperson, since members of the order were aging and there were fewer new recruits.

Today, only two brothers work at Collège Notre Dame: one in maintenance and the other in audio-visual. But there are brothers on the board of directors, giving the Brothers of Holy Cross a say in the running of the school, such as hiring the director general, renovations, approval of financial statements and approving signatories to bank accounts.

Brothers of Holy Cross finances

In Montreal, the order has about $50 million in assets, including investments and property. Brothers got their money from three sources: income from investments, old age pension and provincial pension, and rent from Collège Notre Dame, which is about $350,000 a year. A year and a half ago, the brothers joined together with the province's Fathers of Holy Cross to create one entity worth close to $100 million.

They pay no income tax and get a 50-per-cent refund for GST and PST.

Donations, which don't amount to more than about $13,000 annually, go to the overseas missions.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.