By Janet Bagnall
October 16, 2010
In 1990, child victims of sexual predators were no longer a legal novelty in Quebec. Still, the province's justice system wasn't sure what to do with them. In a criminal trial, should they testify in open court, facing their aggressors? Could they be placed behind a screen, so that they knew their assailants were in the room with them, they just couldn't see them?
In one case I watched, the prosecutor chose the screen. She took the witness, a poppet of 6, and raced with her through the court, steering her to a chair behind a bilious green screen. She wasn't fast enough to prevent the little girl from catching sight of the uncle who used to babysit her and her 8-year-old brother.
After being first led through bewildering questions about the nature of truthfulness, the child was questioned about the assaults, first by the prosecutor, then by the defence lawyer, who asked her over and again about the dates when the man had abused her, long after it was clear the child couldn't answer.
This was a simple case, brought by a furious father against a man who had zero social power and who ended up pleading guilty on all counts. But it was still a nightmare. To get justice for their children, the parents were forced to let them be subjected to cross-examination by an insensitive lawyer, in the same room as the man who assaulted them.
Imagine a similar family, but a decade earlier, and this time the assailant is the parish priest. And behind him, telling the parents to forget about what happened to their child, the Roman Catholic Church.
The family retreated into silence. The church pushed the priest, Paul-Henri Lachance, along to another parish, its usual approach to pedophiliac priests until recently.
Justice was not served in that case in 1981 and there's some risk it isn't going to be now, either. The child in that case was Shirley Christensen, 37. It took her until 2006 to understand that she deserved to have her day in court. It was when she saw her partner's 8-year-old daughter naked in the bath that memories of herself at the same age came flooding back, memories of her abuse by Lachance. In 2006, she went to the police, and in 2007 she launched a $250,000 civil action against Lachance and the archdiocese of Quebec.
Things went fine on the criminal side: Lachance pleaded guilty in 2009. In hervictim-impact statement, Christensen said she wanted to be "freed from this prison where I have been serving a sentence for the past nearly 30 years for a crime I didn't commit."
The civil suit hasn't proved quite as straightforward, notwithstanding Lachance's admission of guilt. Despite a 1992 Supreme Court ruling that some cases require a longer time frame, Quebec insists that civil suits have a three-year file-by date. Other jurisdictions have accepted that victims of sexual assault, especially children, might not grasp the link between the damage they suffered and the abuse until years later.
Her civil suit rejected by Quebec, this week Christensen went to the Supreme Court of Canada, arguing that the psychological trauma she suffered had prevented her from taking civil action earlier than 2006.
This is a case that could have a huge impact in Quebec. As far as France Bedard is concerned, Quebec is a "safe haven" for abusive priests, as she told Postmedia News. Head of an association for "victims of priests," Bedard told French media that in the two years of its existence the association has received 425 calls from Quebecers, mainly men.
A Montreal man, Serge D'arcy, has already moved ahead, filing in August a request for permission to launch a class-action suit against the Congregation des Clercs de Saint-Viateur de Montreal. D'arcy's claim covers the years 1964 to 1972. He is alleging that physical and sexual abuse he and others suffered at the congregation's institute for the deaf and mute led to psychological and social problems for him and others.
Quebec looks very bad here. It looks as though it has to be dragged, one traumatizing, drawn-out lawsuit at a time, to accept what the rest of the country has agreed to: That shell-shocked children might need decades before they can take on their abusers, especially if they are as powerful as the Roman Catholic Church. Quebec should be ashamed to be depending on people recovering from childhood sex-abuse to push it into the modern age.
Correction: In my column last week, I wrote that the Canadian Forces Provost Marshal Report for 2008 stated there were 170 sexual assaults in 2008, 176 in 2007 and 201 in 2006. What the 2008 report mentioned were sexual assault investigations, not confirmed assaults as I stated. My mistake.
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