Abuse Case Could Change Compensation Law in Quebec

By Marianne White
National Post
October 13, 2010

Advocates for sexual-abuse victims in Quebec have long protested it is more difficult to seek compensation from the courts in that province than anywhere else in the country -- but they are hoping the Supreme Court of Canada will change that. The country's highest court will hear today the case of Shirley Christensen, 36, a Quebec woman who wants to sue the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Quebec for allegedly allowing a priest to abuse her between the ages of six and eight.

The priest, Paul-Henri Lachance, pleaded guilty in 2009 to several charges of sexual assault against Ms. Christensen, and was sentenced to 18 months in jail.

"This is going to be an important decision for victims, and one that could have an impact on similar cases before the courts," said Louise Langevin, a Laval University law professor who has counselled Ms. Christensen's lawyers in the past.

Ms. Christensen alleges the Quebec City archdiocese was responsible for Lachance and turned a blind eye on his behaviour after the allegations were brought forward.

Her parents contacted the archbishop after their daughter confided in them and were told not to disclose the information, and that Lachance would be dealt with. He was eventually transferred to a neighbouring parish.

The archdiocese dismissed Ms. Christensen's civil action on the grounds of a Quebec law that says it is not possible to sue more than three years after the alleged abuse took place, unless it was impossible to bring the proceedings before the courts earlier.

Alongside Prince Edward Island, Quebec is the only province that still has limitations on how long after abuse an action can be launched in cases of sexual assault.

Law professor Daniel Gardner said Quebec victims are not on an equal footing with those in other provinces.

"It is harder for victims to file civil action in Quebec than in other provinces," said Mr. Gardner, who teaches at Laval University. He noted that most provinces changed their legislation on statutes of limitations following a landmark decision from the Supreme Court in 1992 that ruled the time for filling a lawsuit is "paused" until the victim was reasonably capable of discovering the wrongful nature of the abuser's acts, and the connection between those acts and the victim's injuries.

The ruling applied to common law and because Quebec has a civil code, the Supreme Court decision did not stand.

"Quebec is giving peace of mind to abusers, but what about the peace of minds of victims?" said Ms. Christensen's lawyer, Alain Arsenault. "They suffered a major trauma; they need more often than not psychological support and they cannot seek compensation for that."

In her motion, Ms. Christensen alleged psychological trauma prevented her from bringing the case to light earlier than 2006, when she became aware of the magnitude of what she had been through.

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