CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) [Toronto, Canada]
March 16, 2022
By Jason Proctor
Lawsuit claims church’s culture silences witnesses and whistleblowers while enabling abusers
WARNING: This article contains graphic content and may affect those who have experienced sexual violence or know someone affected by it.
A former student who attended a Mission, B.C. seminary in the 1970s has filed a lawsuit against the school, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Vancouver, and the estate of a dead monk who he claims sexually assaulted him decades ago.
The alleged victim, who is applying to keep his identity anonymous, was one of three complainants in a 1990s criminal sexual assault trial that ended in the acquittal of Benedictine monk Vincent Harold Sander, known as Father Placidus.
According to a notice of civil claim filed this week in B.C. Supreme Court, the man claims Sander fondled his genitals and penetrated him anally when he was a 13-year-old student at the Seminary of Christ the King.
The lawsuit claims the church and the seminary failed to protect the alleged victim when he attended the school from September 1977 to June 1978 — instead promoting a culture that “silenced witnesses, complainants and whistleblowers” while “enabling perpetrators of sexual abuse to continue to commit their grievous crimes.”
‘A serious offence against God’
The alleged victim lived in a dormitory during the year he attended the seminary.
He claims Sander taught art class and took an interest in a sketch he made of the monk’s profile.
“The plaintiff subsequently attended at Sander’s private office,” the lawsuit reads.
“Sander gestured him into the adjacent room where his pants and underwear were lowered to his ankles.”
The allegations echo those contained in a case set for trial this fall against the seminary and a number of monks, including Sander, who died in Mission at age 94 in October 2021.
Both cases also name the “sole corporation” of the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Vancouver — which is the legal entity that makes up the office.
In the case already underway, Mark O’Neill is suing for damages related to sexual and physical abuse he claims he suffered as a seminary student between 1974 and 1978, starting at age 13.
According to court documents, both O’Neill and the alleged victim in the suit filed this week were complainants in a criminal case against Sander, which was dismissed in December 1997.
News articles at the time said the monk admitted to a “consensual genital act” with a Grade 12 student in the 1980s during trial and admitted to kissing a student on the lips but not touching him “in any sexually inappropriate manner.”
Sander denied any abuse and was quoted as testifying that “what is alleged is a serious offence against a person and a serious offence against God … Categorically, they did not happen.”
Culture perpetuated deviant behaviour
Last spring, the B.C. Supreme Court judge overseeing O’Neill’s civil case ordered former Archbishop Adam Exner, who is in his 90s, to be questioned in preparation for trial on O’Neill’s claim Exner should be held vicariously liable for abuse.
Exner was archbishop in the ’90s, long after the alleged abuse, but the judge said “he was personally involved with dealing with the consequences” of the criminal trial.
According to the lawsuit filed this week, the seminary operates for the “specific purpose of enrolling teenage boys who have expressed an interest in becoming Roman Catholic priests.”
The claim alleges three graduates have been convicted of child molestation, including Christopher Paul Neil, a notorious B.C. pedophile who became known as “Swirl Face” after he obscured his image online in photos of himself abusing young boys in Southeast Asia.
Neil was sentenced to five and a half years in jail in 2014.
The notice of claim faults the seminary and the church for alleged complicity in a culture of “entrenched clericalism and distorted beliefs that implicitly promoted the psychosexual immaturity of priests and seminarians, perpetuating sexually deviant behaviour.”
The lawsuit says the “worldwide Roman Catholic Church’s policies, philosophies and doctrines … reflect this culture.”
‘He saw himself as a sinner’
The alleged victim claims to suffer from post-traumatic stress, chronic anger and a lack of self-worth as well as “a loss of connection to faith and a higher spiritual power.”
The man is seeking damages for negligence, and wilful blindness related to what he claims is a failure by the seminary and the archbishop to advocate before the pope for “fundamental change to the structure and culture of the worldwide Roman Catholic Church to prevent sexual abuse from continually re-occurring.”
According to his claim, the alleged victim is seeking punitive and aggravated damages against the defendants for “publicly celebrating and rejoicing” the monk’s life in the last issue of Pax Regis, the seminary’s bi-annual publication.
A two-page tribute to Sander said he “had been forced to come to a deep sense of his own human weakness as well as the ways that other people had been hurt by his own actions. He saw himself as a sinner in need of God’s mercy.”
Without going into details about the reasons, the article says Sander “humbly accepted reduced responsibilities when this became necessary; yet he began a no less active but more hidden phase of his monastic service.”
“Father Placidus was realistic about the fact that, although many people counted him as a grace in their lives, not everyone had such a positive experience of him,” the tribute reads.
“He responded to this hard truth by embracing a deep conversion of life with gratitude and faith.”
None of the defendants has filed a response to the lawsuit yet.
Support is available for anyone who has been sexually assaulted. You can access crisis lines and local support services through this Government of Canada website or the Ending Violence Association of Canada database. If you’re in immediate danger or fear for your safety or that of others around you, please call 911.