Catholic archdiocese of Halifax-Yarmouth knew of sexual abuse, ‘vicariously liable’ for it, lawyer says

Saltwire Network [Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada]

November 17, 2021

By Francis Campbell

The alleged sexual abuse of a 10-year-old altar boy by a Roman Catholic priest nearly 60 years ago in Halifax is at the centre of a class action against the Halifax-Yarmouth archdiocese.

“The case law from the Supreme Court of Canada … is quite clear that dioceses are vicariously liable for sexual abuse by their priests,” said John McKiggan, the Halifax lawyer who filed the class action in Nova Scotia Supreme Court in August 2018 on behalf of Douglas Champagne, the young altar boy from the early 1960s, and other plaintiffs. 

“There is no doubt about that, so it’s a bit surprising to us that they’ve been fighting that,” McKiggan said of diocesan liability. 

“In our opinion, the only issue in this case really is who was abused and how much money are they entitled to to compensate for what they went through. That’s really what we view this case to be about. The defendants have taken a different view of that, they are defending the claim on a variety of different issues.”

Aurea Sadi, communications director for the archdiocese, said there would be no comment from the archdiocese while the matter is still before the court.

The filed class action says Douglas Champagne was eight years old in 1960, when his father abandoned the family.

Douglas’s mother contacted Father George G. Epoch of Canadian Martyrs church in Halifax to arrange for counselling for her son.

Responsible for training altar boys at Canadian Martyrs, Epoch suggested that serving on the altar would benefit Douglas.

Douglas became an altar boy in 1962, the class action says. After the others had left at the end of a practice, Epoch kept Douglas in the garment room and sexually assaulted him. The acts of sexual assault went on for months and Epoch told Douglas that he loved him.

Epoch brought Douglas to the residence where all the priests lived and sexually assaulted him in his room there, the class action claim says.

“Other priests that lived at the residence looked at Douglas with a combination of disgust and sympathy” but “did not lift a finger to prevent the abuse that they knew or ought to have known was taking place,” the claim says. 

The sexual abuse continued until Epoch was transferred.

The effect on Douglas’s life has been lasting and permanent, McKiggan asserts in the claim. 

He began skipping school, sometimes for as long as a month at a time and he forged notes from his mother telling school administrators that he had an incurable disease. 

Douglas struggled through junior high school, the claim reads. He was suspended from school and travelled to western Canada where he moved from job to job. 

He returned to Nova Scotia briefly in 1972 but the memories of the abuse aggravated his psychological injuries.

In 1974, he left Nova Scotia and did not return. At the time of the launch of the class action, he was residing in British Columbia.

The class action says priests employed by the archdiocese, which amalgamated the former dioceses of Halifax and Yarmouth in 2011, had for decades “sexually assaulted and battered Catholic worshippers who attended their parishes.”

Responsible for the spiritual guidance and care of the claimants, the lawsuit says priests developed a relationship of psychological intimacy with their victims that provided them the opportunity to “engage in acts of sexual assault and battery.”

Several of the abusive priests were criminally convicted but many others were sent off to a church-run treatment facility in Ontario and then placed back in archdiocesan parishes with no warning or notice to parishioners of the priests’ past actions, the class action claims.

The archdiocese or previous dioceses had sole authority to “appoint, train, supervise, reprimand and dismiss priests” but by failing to do so was negligent and in breach of a fiduciary duty to the victims of the alleged abuse, the class action maintains.

“The defendant is also vicariously liable for the archdiocese’s priests’ conduct.”

Epoch died in 1986 with an unblemished public record but the Jesuit Fathers of Upper Canada paid more than 100 victims of his abuse in Ontario alone over the next decade.

In the past, McKiggan has referred to Epoch as “one of the most prolific sexual abusers,” in Canadian history.

McKiggan, who represented 142 victims who received compensation for abuse by priests in a $16-million settlement reached with the Antigonish Diocese in 2009, said the Halifax-Yarmouth claim passed the initial step of certification in June 2020. 

That means the court decided that there exists common issues that are the same for all the members of the class and that the plaintiffs can proceed as a group.

“Right now, because the claim has been certified, everybody that is part of the class, everybody that claims to be abused by a priest that was employed by the archdiocese or the Yarmouth diocese is part of the class action,” McKiggan said. The issues that have been certified – negligence, breach of fiduciary duties – those issues will be determined for everybody at the same time at the common issues trial.”

The common issues trial is scheduled for Sept. 11 to Oct. 23 of 2023, the lag time between the certification and the court dates having been created by a lack of available court dates, exacerbated by pandemic cancellations and the federal priority to schedule criminal trials.

McKiggan said the “potentially hundreds” of class members, and the archdiocese could reach a settlement any time before the court date.

“That’s up to the diocese,” he said of the likelihood of a settlement.

“What’s happening now is we are waiting for disclosure from the archdiocese. We’ve asked for a significant amount of information from the diocese dealing with what they knew, when they knew it, who knew, what they did (about it), policies and procedures,” McKiggan said.

“It’s been taking the diocese a very long time to collect that information. Once we receive that information, the next step would be to conduct discovery examinations where we have to question people under oath about these issues. It’s all part of the trial preparation process.”

McKiggan said the archdiocese “can’t deny that abuse has taken place” because they’ve already admitted that it took place in material filed with the court in settling “in excess of 40 or 50 cases of people who have been sexually abused by priests.”

“They knew that this was going on and they know they are responsible for it,” McKiggan said. “They are just denying their obligation to pay the class.”