Sex misconduct suit hangs over Ouellet

The Catholic Register - Archdiocese of Toronto, Ontario, Canada

August 31, 2022

By Michael Swan

Cardinal Marc Ouellet’s legal battle  over allegations he made unwanted sexual advances toward a young intern over a decade ago might place him between the Church’s Code of Canon Law and Canadian law.

Between the Church’s long and complex tradition of law and Canada’s common law system, there’s not much agreement on what constitutes sexual assault or how allegations are investigated and brought to trial, one of Canada’s most senior canonists told The Catholic Register. Msgr. Roch Pagé, professor emeritus of Canon Law at Saint Paul University in Ottawa.

Pagé said the story of what will happen to allegations against Ouellet is not over yet. Pope Francis has decided against proceeding to a full canonical trial, but “the secular law has not yet begun,” Pagé noted.

The specific allegations are not a criminal matter. They were made in a class action civil suit against the Archdiocese of Quebec.

Ouellet, who heads the Vatican department that vets candidates for the post of bishop, has called allegations against him “false” and “defamatory.”

Ouellet has said he will seek to clear his name in any proceedings that come from the civil litigation filings in Quebec.

The civil suit seeks damages for 101 alleged victims who have accused approximately 88 priests or diocesan staff of sexual assault. Some of the assaults are alleged to have taken place as far back as the 1940s.

In the suit that includes Ouellet, a young woman identified only as “F.” claims that between 2008 and 2010, when she was an intern at the Archdiocese of Quebec’s curial offices, the then Archbishop administered unwanted shoulder massages, caresses and hugs. The actions made her uncomfortable and caused her to avoid attending events where she knew the cardinal archbishop would be present. She also claims that some years later she was sexually assaulted by another cleric, Abbot Leopold Manirabarusha, on more than 15 occasions.

The allegations have not been tested in court. The Archdiocese of Quebec has not filed a statement of defence.

“F.” made her allegations known to Pope Francis in a letter sent to him in January of 2021. Pope Francis appointed Jesuit Fr. Jacques Servais to conduct a preliminary investigation which would determine under Canon 1717 paragraph 1 whether either an administrative or judicial process is warranted. Both administrative and judicial proceedings can result in findings of guilt, innocence or not proven and in legal penalties under Canon Law.

“The two options remain penal, because there is a presumed delict,” said Pagé.

In March last year, Servais interviewed “F.” in a Zoom call. Servais’ report to Pope Francis concluded that nothing happened which any canonical procedure could adjudicate.

“Neither in her written report to the Holy Father, nor in testimony via Zoom that I subsequently collected in the presence of a member of the ad hoc diocesan committee, did this person make an accusation that would provide material for such an investigation,” Servais wrote in his report, said the Vatican press office.

The press office also said the Pope made further consultations.

“Pope Francis declares that there are insufficient elements to open a canonical investigation for sexual assault by Cardinal Ouellet against person F,” said the statement from Matteo Bruni, director of the Holy See press office.

In most cases of civil litigation for sexual abuse against the Church – there are at least seven such class actions pending in Quebec alone – the guilt or innocence of those named has already been established in criminal court, leaving civil court judges the task of determining damages to be awarded to victims, said Pagé, who is currently consulting on class actions against three Quebec religious institutes.

In this case, the allegations against Ouellet are going directly to civil court without criminal charges being laid.

“It’s a personal decision of the victim F. to go with a civil suit, instead of filing a complaint in a criminal matter,” Justin Wee of Arsenault Dufresne Wee Avocats told The Catholic Register in an email. “Here in Quebec, a civil lawsuit can be done without a criminal conviction.”

Wee is the lead attorney on the civil case against the Archdiocese of Quebec.

While in recent years the Holy See has legislated extensively in the area of sexual assault against minors and vulnerable adults, there is relatively little in the Canon Law tradition about such abuses of power and authority involving competent adults, he said.

The clearest Canon Law definition of sexual abuse involving competent adults is actually contained in the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops’ 2018 guidelines, “Protecting Minors From Sexual Abuse.”

In the glossary and definitions section of the Canadian guidelines, Canada’s bishops speak of “any abuse of power, betrayal of trust, or exploitation of the imbalance of power inherent in a ministerial relationship between a representative of a Church entity and the person with whom a ministerial relationship exists.”

The Canadian bishops sought to align their policies with Canadian law on consent between adults. The definitions section of the guidelines was approved by the Holy See.