British Columbia

B.C. man sues Vancouver archdiocese over abuse claimed at Catholic summer camp

Vern Mulvahill has lived with an anger at his core since he was eight years old. The Chilliwack truck driver's rage has expressed itself through violence, heavy drinking and restlessness. At 49, Mulvahill says he is tired of feeling ashamed for a wrong that was done to him as a child.

Chilliwack man says he believes there are more victims of man he accuses of molesting him at camp

A statue of Pope John Paul II welcomes visitors to the Catholic Archdiocese of Vancouver. The archdiocese is facing a lawsuit from a B.C. man who claims he was sexually assaulted in the late 70s at a summer camp run by the church. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

Vernon Mulvahill says he has lived with an anger at his core since he was seven or eight years old.

In the decades since, the Chilliwack truck driver's rage has expressed itself through violence, heavy drinking and restlessness.

Mulvahill says he is tired of feeling ashamed for a wrong that was done to him as a child.

He is suing the Roman Catholic bishop of Vancouver and the archdiocese over sexual assault he claims happened at a summer camp in the late 70s.

In the process Mulvahill says, he is trying to fix himself.

"I'm 49 years old. I'll be 50 in November. I'm a wreck trying to correct myself," Mulvahill says by way of introduction during a telephone interview.

"I'm here to start my own healing path and try to correct a lot of the wrong I did throughout my life because of what happened to me in a Bible camp."

'Vulnerable and in need of guidance'

Mulvahill filed his lawsuit in B.C. Supreme Court earlier this month and is now steeling himself for the legal journey ahead with the hope speaking publicly about what allegedly happened to him might help others.

The archdiocese has not filed a response to the claim, which has not been proven in court. A spokesperson said the church would not comment while the matter is before the courts.

According to his notice of civil claim, Mulvahill was sexually assaulted by a man at Camp Latona on Gambier Island in 1978 or 1979.

Vernon Mulvahill has filed a notice of civil claim in B.C. Supreme Court against the Vancouver archdiocese in relation to abuse he claims to have suffered as a child. (David Horemans/CBC)

The man — called John Doe in the court documents — was allegedly a counsellor or clergy member tasked with making "a difference in the lives of children by providing opportunities for youth to grow and develop into citizens of the world through religious principles."

The lawsuit claims Doe used his position to develop a close relationship with Mulvahill "when he was young, vulnerable and in need of guidance."

He allegedly used that power to exert control over the boy, "prey upon him and sexually assault him."

Mulvahill says he told his foster mother at the time what happened, and she reported the man to the authorities. 

He grew up, Mulvahill says. But he never really moved on.

"I took all the stuff I learned to defend myself as an eight-year-old — shutting people out of my life, not knowing how to love, not wanting to love, dealing with things with extreme violence," Mulvahill said.

In October 2017, he says he had a mental breakdown, spending more than two months in a psychiatric unit. 

"I almost lost my wife. But she's strong enough to — she's an amazing woman," he said, his voice trailing off into a sob.

"She's amazing. She put up with everything. She stuck with me. She believed in me."

'Shame, confusion, guilt, and loss of faith'

According to the B.C. Catholic online magazine, the church ran Camp Latona on the north end of Gambier Island for nearly 40 years.

The archdiocese began operating the residential camp in 1957 to offer Catholic youth "a summer wilderness experience with swimming, boating, arts and crafts, camping, hiking, fishing, archery, campfires, skits and songs."

A member of the Catholic church waits for the opening session of the annual U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore, Md. Vancouver's archbishop has spoken out about the problem of sexual assault and encouraged survivors to come forward. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

Priests offered Sunday mass, while seminarians led weekday prayers. In 1995, the archdiocese ended operations at the camp, which is now under private ownership.

In 2012, a former female camper sued the archdiocese for sexual exploitation in relation to a priest she met at the camp as a seminarian in 1985 when she was 15.

The lawsuit was ultimately settled out of court. The archdiocese recently named the priest, Lawrence Edward (Damian) Cooper, as part of a report into clergy either charged or sued in connection with sexual assault.

In an introduction to that report, Archbishop Michael Miller invited and encouraged victims of abuse to come forward.

"It has taken the Catholic Church around the world far too long to address its particularly devastating consequences when that abuse is perpetrated by a priest," Miller wrote.

"Such abuse readily leads to shame, confusion, guilt, and loss of faith — all of which have painful, lifelong effects on victims."

'Will I be taken seriously'

Mulvahill's notice of civil claim was filed a little more than a week after the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced the discovery of a burial site adjacent to the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.

The two situations are unrelated; Mulvahill says his lawsuit has been in the works since 2017.

A memorial outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. A lawyer for sexual assault survivors says the news of the discovery of a burial site has been traumatizing for his clients. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

But the news affected him deeply. He obtained Indian status this year after growing up with only a "hush hush" sense of his origins: his mother said his father was Cree and she rarely spoke about her own roots.

"When I heard about the 215 children, a part of me felt relief that now it's out there. It's out there worldwide. They can't deny it. They can't deny what they did to us," he said.

"It brought up a whole lot of emotions that I'm not ready to deal with. I'm back to being angry again and agitated."

Mulvahill's lawyer, Joseph Fearon, says he represents others who have pursued claims for childhood sexual abuse decades after it happened.

He says both Indigenous and non-Indigenous clients have been traumatized by the events of the past month.

"It's brought up a lot of very difficult memories for them as to what they went through when they were children," he said.

"I've talked to clients who were close to relapsing with drug use after seeing in the news what happened to those 215 children over and over again, because it's bringing back what they survived as children. Looking that trauma and pain in the face is difficult for any human being to do."

Mulvahill says he's tired of feeling guilty. He's looking, in part, for the assurance he didn't get when he was eight: that what allegedly happened to him was not his fault.

He's anxious. Just as a part of him was anxious upon learning about his Indigenous roots.

"It kind of gave me more power, but it also made me feel weaker, like I'm not going to be taken seriously" he said.

"I know I shouldn't be talking like that, but that's my personal feeling. When I go and start this case, will I be taken seriously, or will people laugh at me?"

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jason Proctor

@proctor_jason

Jason Proctor is a reporter in British Columbia for CBC News and has covered the B.C. courts and mental health issues in the justice system extensively.

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