Ex-priest, 93, acquitted of indecent assault at Manitoba residential school

CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) [Toronto, Canada]

March 30, 2023

By Bryce Hoye

Arthur Masse was charged last year in alleged incident at Fort Alexander dating back more than 50 years

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

A retired priest accused of assaulting a First Nations girl at a Manitoba residential school more than 50 years ago has been acquitted.

Victoria McIntosh, 63, alleged she was assaulted by Arthur Masse, now 93, in a bathroom of the Fort Alexander Residential School in eastern Manitoba’s Sagkeeng First Nation sometime between 1968 and 1970.

Loved ones, some wearing orange Every Child Matters shirts, hugged McIntosh in court in Winnipeg as Manitoba Court of King’s Bench Justice Candace Grammond read her decision on Thursday acquitting Masse.

Grammond said she believes McIntosh was assaulted, but she wasn’t persuaded that Masse in particular was necessarily the one who did it.

“I have concluded when taken as a whole her identification of the accused was not sufficiently reliable to convince me beyond a reasonable doubt that he perpetrated an assault,” Justice Grammond told court on Thursday.

McIntosh and Masse were the only witnesses who testified in the two-day judge-alone trial earlier this month.

The Anishinaabe woman told court the alleged assault lasted about a minute and Masse told her afterward not to tell anyone.

[Photo: Victoria McIntosh, seen here in a March file photo, accused Masse of assaulting her at the Fort Alexander residential school more than 50 years ago. (Ron Boileau/CBC)]

Masse testified that he did not assault McIntosh and said he had no recollection of interacting with her when she was a student.

McIntosh first reported the assault allegation to police in 2015 and has said it took her several years to feel she could speak about what happened.

Masse was charged in June 2022, following a years-long RCMP investigation into allegations of abuse at the residential school.

Court heard that in 2013, McIntosh participated in settlement discussions with the federal government as part of compensation processes for residential school survivors. At no time during that process did McIntosh allege Masse in particular assaulted her, Grammond said.

At trial, McIntosh suggested it wasn’t until after 2013 that she remembered his name. She also said a cartoon character she saw sometime in the past decade or more reminded her of him. 

But McIntosh also suggested she never forgot about the incident itself, which court heard happened when she was nine or 10 years old.

‘Credible witness’: judge

At trial, McIntosh said the assault lasted a minute or less. She said her attacker pushed her against a wall in the bathroom with his forearm and used one hand to fondle her above her clothing. She said he kissed her and said “don’t say nothing” when it was over.

When she was initially interviewed by police in 2013, she did not mention the kiss and said she was able to get away before anything happened, court heard. She also did not mention to police that her attacker told her to stay quiet.

However, while some details weren’t recounted “with absolute precision,” Grammond found “the inconsistencies do not impact her credibility.”

“I found her to be a credible witness,” she said Thursday.

McIntosh also recalled seeing a priest collar on the man who attacked her. Grammond pointed to this in explaining her decision. 

There were several priests working at the school during the time of the alleged assault who could’ve been wearing similar collars, according to Grammond.

At trial, Masse’s lawyer George Green challenged McIntosh over apparent inconsistencies in details she shared with police in 2015 and in court earlier this month. He suggested her memory was unreliable and could include distortions.

Crown attorney Danielle Simard argued McIntosh’s memory “was quite good” compared to Masse’s, including her description of the layout of the school campus and her memories of Masse as a “boss” at the school, clothing he may have worn and other elements of his appearance.

‘Self-serving’ evidence from accused

Grammond found elements of Masse’s memory to be unreliable, including his account of how the school’s in-house complaints process worked at the time. He suggested he received hardly any complaints in his time at the school.

Masse also said he couldn’t remember what kind of uniforms students wore at the time and suggested that school policy allowed students to go to the bathroom without asking permission, court heard. 

Grammond found his recollection of the complaint process and bathroom policy to be “disingenuous.”

“Aspects of the accused’s evidence were self-serving and intended to distance himself from the complainant’s allegations and to downplay the rigid school structure described by the complainant,” said Grammond.

[Photo: Melissa Morrisseau, centre, a supporter of Victoria McIntosh, said outside court on Thursday that she was disappointed with the decision. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)]

While she believes McIntosh was assaulted, Grammond said the timing and and nature of her identification of Masse as her attacker are relevant in the case, alluding to the lack of discussion about the incident in McIntosh’s 2013 settlement discussions and her 2015 interview with police.

That left Grammond unconvinced beyond a reasonable doubt the person who assaulted McIntosh was Masse.

McIntosh left court without speaking with reporters. One of her supporters present Thursday, Melissa Morrisseau, said she was angry with the outcome.

“There’s no justice for our survivors,” she said.

Challenge of historical cases

One of the more significant convictions for residential school abuses came in 1989.

Roman Catholic Reverend Harold McIntee was sentenced to two years after pleading guilty to 17 counts of sexual assault against young men, with some incidents involving victims he abused while working at B.C. residential schools.

One of the highest profile Prairie cases involved William Starr pleading guilty to sexually assaulting 10 young boys while a principal in Saskatchewan. He got four years in prison and later admitted to potentially hundreds more abuses.

Some salient details in those two cases — guilty pleas, multiple charges laid, numerous victim testimonies — were absent in Masse’s trial.

A retired priest accused of assaulting a First Nations girl at a Manitoba residential school more than 50 years ago has been acquitted.

Former Manitoba Crown attorney Debbie Buor said historical cases present unique challenges.

“They are difficult to prosecute just because of the passage of time changes many different things and doesn’t provide the optimal evidence to get a conviction,” she said. 

Sagkeeng Chief Derrick Henderson said he is disappointed but has come to expect the kind of decision delivered Thursday because “the court system has never listened to our people.”

“The harms that were done to our people in the residential school are irreparable,” he said in a statement. “We will always be there for [McIntosh] and her family.”

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available to provide support for survivors and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour service at 1-866-925-4419.

Mental health counselling and crisis support is also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat.


Bryce Hoye

Bryce Hoye is a multi-platform Manitoba journalist covering news, science, justice, health, 2SLGBTQ issues and other community stories. He has a background in wildlife biology and occasionally works for CBC’s Quirks & Quarks and Front Burner. He won a national Radio Television Digital News Association award for a 2017 feature on the history of the fur trade. He is also Prairie rep for outCBC.