Supreme Court Says Quebec Woman Can Sue Church for Alleged Childhood Abuse

By Mike De Souza
Vancouver Sun
October 29, 2010

The Supreme Court of Canada.
Photo by Chris Mikula, Postmedia News

The Roman Catholic Church should "act honourably" in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling on Friday that reopens the door to a lawsuit over a series of sexual assaults dating back to the 1970s, said a lawyer representing the victim.

Shirley Christensen was abused as a child in a Quebec City parish in the late 1970s but the assaults were only reported in 2006, eventually resulting in a guilty plea by the priest involved. Rev. Paul-Henri Lachance was sentenced in 2009 to 18 months in jail for the crimes

Christensen, 36, has tried twice to launch lawsuits but was denied by Quebec courts which said she had waited too long because of time limits on when someone can sue for damages in a civil case. The Supreme Court ruling said the case needs to be properly analyzed by the lower court before reaching any conclusion.

"The trial judge will have to assess the evidence to determine whether, on the facts, inferences can be drawn that establish either that prescription did not start to run until 2006 or, possibly, that it was suspended in the circumstances of this case," said the ruling. "For these reasons, the appeal is allowed."

But lawyer Sebastien Grammond said this would force his client to face cross-examination about why she waited to launch the lawsuit and on her psychological state.

"It will be a potentially difficult process and that's why we invite the church to think again about its position and its strategy in this case and act honourably and make a reasonable offer of settlement," said Grammond, who is also the dean of civil law at the University of Ottawa.

He said the church was using the existing law to cover up the impact of the conduct of its priests.

A spokesman for the Quebec City diocese of the Catholic Church declined to comment since the case is still before the courts.

Grammond said the Quebec government could also intervene by bringing the province's laws in line with its counterparts in the rest of Canada that do not restrict civil suits from sexual assault victims who have waited more than three years before taking legal action.

Christensen had argued that she had previously been incapable of acting or launching proceedings against the church which had asked her family in the 1970s not to go to police and had moved the priest to a different parish. She alleged that during the summer of 2006, she started to recall some memories of the abuse and resulting trauma.

"So I think there are grounds to rethink this," Grammond said. "I think there are grounds for the (Quebec) justice minister (Jean-Marc Fournier) to seriously consider the possibility of modifying the law to adopt a rule that is similar to those in the other provinces."

Meantime, he described the case as a partial victory that sends a message that defendants should think twice before trying to derail civil lawsuits launched by sexual assault victims who were abused more than three years earlier.

In Quebec City, Fournier said the question raised by the judgment is "disturbing" and he is open to amending Quebec's Civil Code, which fixed the three-year limit.

"Since we are open to changes, because the situation is disturbing, we will analyze the different options, the consequences, the impact," Fournier added.

"We are not at the decision-making point, yet."

Asked why Quebec is trailing other provinces in this area, Fournier could not say.

"I have not done a historic analysis of the situation. What I know, without commenting on this case, is that it allows us to question the different options we have."

Robert Cornellier, who is seeking permission to file a class-action suit on behalf of his late brother, Rene, and others who say they were abused in the 1970s and '80s by brothers of Congregation of Holy Cross, applauded the decision.

"It's a big victory," said Cornellier.

Lawyers for Congregation of Holy Cross, had planned to go into Quebec Superior Court at a scheduled hearing next month and defeat the victims' attempt to sue for damages by claiming they'd passed the three-year time limit.

With files from Montreal Gazette


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