nb-levi-noel

Retired priest Levi Noel abused the trust of his victims and the community, the judge said during his sentencing. ((Alison Northcott/CBC))

A retired Roman Catholic priest who worked on New Brunswick's Acadian Peninsula for 30 years has been sentenced to eight years in prison for 22 sex-related offences involving boys.

Crown prosecutor Pierre Gionet told reporters he believes it is the longest sentence a priest has ever received for this type of crime in Canada.

Levi Noel, 84, pleaded guilty last October to 18 of the charges, including gross indecency and indecent assault. The charges related to incidents that occurred between 1958 and 1981, while Noel was a priest in northeastern New Brunswick.

He pleaded guilty to four additional charges this week after four more victims came forward.

The RCMP investigation into allegations against Noel began in May 2008 after one person spoke out and continues to this day as more alleged victims have come forward since the original charges were laid.

The victims were boys between the ages of eight and 16 at the time of the abuse, the court heard.

During sentencing in Tracadie-Sheila on Friday, Judge Donald LeBlanc said Noel abused the trust of his victims and the community and abused his authority as a priest.

Some of Noel's victims were abused every week for years and were blamed for the abuse, the judge said. All of them have suffered psychological consequences as a result, he said.

Noel sat still, staring straight ahead as the judge read the sentence.

Several of his victims and their relatives were in the courtroom for the sentencing.

Some victims, who have voluntarily allowed their names to be made public despite a publication ban, held a news conference after the sentencing to speak out against the abuse and to persuade other victims to come forward.

Lowell Mallais had a picture of himself as a young boy pinned to his shirt. "This is the age I was abused at, at 12 years old," he explained.

Mallais said he's relieved Noel is going to jail, but he's not sure eight years is enough.

"I've suffered, what, 46 years? He's going to get eight."

Mallais and some of Noel's other victims are calling on the diocese of Bathurst, N.B., to do more to help them and others who have been sexually abused.

They want the diocese to implement changes to prevent further abuse and to make psychological counselling available to victims.

More legal action possible

"It's the diocese of Bathurst's moment now," said Robert Talach, an Ontario lawyer who helped the victims organize the news conference.

"Are they going to be like every other diocese and react in a protective, medieval way? Or are they going to be innovative and new and set the standard for the church around the world? That's up to this bishop and that's the challenge that's at his feet."

Talach said no lawsuit has been launched against the diocese but didn't rule out the possibility.

"There's some unanswered questions that the victims have that the criminal system is not designed to answer," he said.

"Questions of institutional responsibility, institutional awareness and forward-thinking issues of change and policies that need to be implemented that can't be effected through a criminal process since its sole focus is on the perpetrator."

For now, Talach believes speaking out is the next step in dealing with the past for many of the men.

"For many of them, I think there's a cathartic healing journey of coming forward and going through the legal process," he said.

"They have sat by the wayside as the criminal process has moved forward with its own momentum, and now, as that concludes, they see this as an opportunity for them to speak out and tell of their experiences and their desires for the future."

Noel left the Bathurst diocese decades ago.