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Ronald Martin, who launched the class action suit, is shown before court proceedings on Thursday. ((CBC))

A Nova Scotia court has approved a $15-million settlement between a Roman Catholic diocese in the province and dozens of sexual abuse victims.

The deal, announced last month by the diocese, is being hailed as the first time the Roman Catholic Church has apologized and set up a compensation package for people who claimed they were sexually abused by priests without fighting the charges in court.

A Nova Scotia Supreme Court judge decided Thursday that the settlement agreement, which covers people who claimed they were sexually abused by a priest in the diocese dating back to 1950, is fair and reasonable for both sides.

Ronald Martin, the lead plaintiff in the class-action suit, said hearing Justice David MacAdam's decision was emotional.

"He brought me to tears, with that decision," Martin said. "To say it, it validated what my brother did."

Ronald Martin's brother, David, killed himself in 2002 and left a note stating that he had been abused by a priest. Martin said he vowed to seek justice. He, too, was a victim.

"I made a promise to him to make sure justice was served, and that was a tremendous promise to keep," said Martin.

What resulted was a class-action lawsuit that claimed the church, under instructions from the Pope, had a policy to keep sex-abuse allegations against priests secret, with ex-communication as the penalty.

It also claimed the church, diocese and bishop sent priests from the Antigonish diocese for treatment for "sexual deviations," but kept it secret and didn't protect children.

John McKiggan, the lawyer behind the class-action suit, called the deal "unprecedented" in Canada.

He said $12 million will go to damages, approximately $400,000 to counselling fees and the remainder to legal fees and paying for the administrative process.

"To date we've been retained by 39 claimants," said McKiggan, adding he has been contacted by more than 50 other people looking for information.

Their claims will be reviewed in private. Lawyers for both sides say the process will spare people a lengthy, public and often traumatic court hearing.

"Ron Martin and Bishop [Raymond] Lahey had the courage … to try to find a better way to do these types of claims. So I'm very proud to be a part of this process," said Bruce MacIntosh, lawyer for the diocese.

As the lead plaintiff, Martin can withdraw if too many victims come forward and tap into the fund. In addition, the diocese can withdraw if any victims decide to pull out of the class action to sue the diocese separately.

Both sides say they hope that neither of those situations happens.

Formal apology

Last month, Lahey announced the multimillion-dollar settlement and formally apologized to the victims and their families.

"I want them to know how terribly sorry we are, how wrong this abuse was, and how we are now trying to right these past wrongs," Lahey said at a news conference in Halifax on Aug. 7.

Lahey also apologized directly to Martin.

In New Waterford, parishioners are pleased that victims will finally be compensated, but some aren't happy that parishes are being asked to share the costs, particularly when the diocese has closed five of the six churches in the community in the past year.

"There's not enough money coming into these churches to begin with. The population around here is down and the wages are low here and we just can't afford to begin paying that kind of money out," said churchgoer Ansie MacPherson.

Officials with the diocese acknowledge that it won't be easy, but said the church needs to do what's right and move forward.

Corrections

  • The amount of the court-approved settlement is about $15 million, not $13 million as previously reported.
    Sep 10, 2009 4:20 PM AT