Canadian Bishops Opposed Settlement

By Trevor Pritchard

August 2, 2008

Urged local bishop not to approve it

A meeting with bishops from across Canada couldn't dissuade Eugene LaRocque from striking an out-of-court settlement with a man accusing a city priest of sexual abuse, the Cornwall Public Inquiry heard yesterday.

"If I remember correctly, the general consensus was, 'Don't do it,'" said LaRocque, bishop of the Alexandria-Cornwall Roman Catholic Diocese from 1975 until 2002.

LaRocque met with the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) in 1993, only days before agreeing to a $32,000 settlement with David Silmser.


Silmser had alleged Rev. Charles MacDonald sexually abused him when he was an altar boy at St. Columban's Church in the 1960s and 1970s. The CCCB's annual conference was sandwiched between two meetings LaRocque had in August and September 1993 with diocesan lawyer Jacques Leduc and Malcolm MacDonald, Charles MacDonald's attorney.

LaRocque told the inquiry --which is probing how institutions like the church dealt with historical sexual abuse complaints -- that the first time he met the two lawyers, they pressed him to settle with Silmser out of the public's eye.

LaRocque said he disagreed because that might appear the diocese was "buying off the victim."

"They (Leduc and Malcolm MacDonald) were both in favour of it, and they were arguing strongly that I do so," said LaRocque.

"And I strongly refused."

A few days after that meeting, LaRocque attended the CCCB conference in Ottawa. During a private session, the bishops discussed what their responsibilities were if their priests were accused of preying on children, he said.

"I stood up and said . . . I had a priest who was accused by one person of abuse that had taken place 20 years ago," said LaRocque.

"And I was being urged by the two lawyers . . . to settle out of court."

LaRocque said it was likely the next day that Leduc and Malcolm MacDonald showed up at his office, pushing once more for a settlement.

Despite the cautionary words of the CCCB, LaRocque said the two lawyers made an argument he couldn't ignore: that the diocese had already promised to cover the cost of Silmser's therapy.

"And I had no answer to that, because that put my back to the wall," he said.

The one instruction LaRocque said he gave to Leduc and Malcolm MacDonald was to draw up a deal that wouldn't prevent Silmser from pursuing criminal charges.

After Silmser signed the settlement, the documents were marked confidential and placed in a sealed envelope.

Both LaRocque and Leduc have told the inquiry they didn't know the $32,000 settlement contained an illegal clause keeping Silmser from going to police until January 1994, when media outlets began reporting on the payout.

Malcolm MacDonald admitted to inserting the clause and in September 1995 pleaded guilty to obstructing justice. One month later, he was given an absolute discharge.

Lead commission counsel Peter Engelmann said he couldn't understand why the diocese didn't just pay for Silmser's therapy without attaching any conditions. That was what the diocese did in 1986, he said, when another priest, Rev. Gilles Deslauriers, was charged with sexual assaults on young men.

"Isn't that the answer -- let's not interfere with that process, let's just do what we did with the Father Deslauriers case?" Engelmann asked.

"In hindsight, it would have been the answer," said LaRocque. "But at that time, I felt myself backed to the wall and I didn't think of that."

LaRocque said he now felt it would have been prudent to run the settlement past the diocese's finance committee -- standard procedure anytime they wanted to issue a cheque for more than $10,000.

But Engelmann suggested the diocese had a good incentive to not take that step.

"If you'd gone to the committee, it would have been lay people from your diocese that would have known this payment was being made," he said.

"I suspect there would have been lay people that already knew," LaRocque replied. "I really don't know. I'm speculating, so I shouldn't speculate."

Charles MacDonald was charged in 1996 with sexually abusing a number of youths. Those charges were stayed six years later after a judge ruled the matter had taken too long to come to trial.

Friday's hearings ended early after LaRocque, 81, said he was too tired to continue. The former bishop is expected to return to the stand when the inquiry resumes Aug. 25.


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