Top Court Opens Door for Sexual Assault Cases

By Mike De Souza
Montreal Gazette
October 30, 2010

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

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 turned down 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 spokesperson for the Quebec City diocese of the Catholic Church declined to comment as 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 previously had been incapable of acting or launching proceedings against the church, which asked her family in the 1970s not to go to police and had moved the priest to a different parish.

She alleged that in 2006, she started to recall some memories of the abuse and resulting trauma.


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