British Columbia

Catholic Archdiocese of Vancouver covered up systemic abuse, silenced survivors for decades, lawsuit claims

A woman who survived abuse as a child at the hands of the Catholic church is suing the Archdiocese of Vancouver for allegedly perpetrating and covering up decades of sexual abuse by priests, bishops and other members of the clergy.

Archdiocese hopes 'publicity' will help give survivors 'confidence to come forward; get the help they deserve'

St. Francis of Assisi Parish pictured in Vancouver on Thursday. A woman who attended the parish as a child has filed a proposed class-action lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Vancouver, claiming the district 'fostered a culture' of abuse and buried allegations of misconduct for decades. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

A woman who claims she was assaulted as a child at a Catholic elementary school in Vancouver is suing the local archdiocese for perpetuating and covering up decades of alleged systemic abuse by priests, bishops and other members of its clergy, forcing survivors into silence in order to protect their own.

The proposed class-action lawsuit filed this week said the Archdiocese of Vancouver not only knew for years about allegations of systemic sexual, physical and psychological abuse, but "fostered a culture" of misconduct and actively buried complaints filed against the clergy.

"The Archdiocese was aware of the abuse and allowed the abuse to continue ... This was especially true in instances of sexual abuse," the claim reads.

The specific claims in the lawsuit have not been proven in court and the archdiocese has not filed a legal response. The Archdiocese of Vancouver has admitted clergymen at the institution were involved in sexual abuse. 

The B.C. Supreme Court claim is first class-action filed against the archdiocese since the district released its own report on clergy sexual abuse in November, confirming at least 36 cases of misconduct dating back to the 1950s.

If the claim succeeds, the lead plaintiff's lawyer said, dozens of survivors could be entitled to compensation from the archdiocese.

"I suspect we're looking at least into the lower hundreds [for claimants], but hard to say for sure," said lawyer Angela Bespflug. "You're dealing with various parishes and then, obviously, parish-run schools ..."

A candleholder is pictured inside the St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Vancouver on Thursday. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

History of abuse

The lead plaintiff, identified only by the initials K.S. in the court documents, said the priest in charge of St. Francis of Assisi School, Father Michael Conaghan, sexually assaulted her while she was a student at the school in the '80s. She was around 11 years old.

The alleged assault "included painful vaginal intercourse," according to the documents. She claimed the assault was followed by intimidation.

"Conaghan told the plaintiff not to tell anyone about the abuse, threatening to have her put into foster care if she did," the filing said.

St. Francis of Assisi Elementary School pictured in Vancouver on Thursday. The lead plaintiff in a proposed class-action lawsuit, K.S., claims she was sexually assaulted by the head priest while she was a student. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

As part of its own report into sexual abuse released in 2019, the archdiocese publicly named nine clergymen who were criminally convicted of sexual abuse or who had civil lawsuits related to abuse settled against them.

Conaghan was not among those nine clergymen.

He died at the age of 83 on Aug. 20 — four days before K.S.'s lawsuit was filed.

In a statement, the archdiocese confirmed K.S. reported her case to the office in early 2019. It said staff suggested she file a police report, encouraged her to seek counselling and checked on Conaghan's status within the ministry, "in order to protect other individuals."

By then, it said, Conaghan was "infirmed" and not active in the church. The archdiocese said Conaghan's latest order, or organization, "confirmed that there had been no complaints ever received about him, including the incidents ... reported in this court case."

"We cannot make any further comments about this case as it is now before the courts," a representative for the archdiocese wrote in an email. "But we hope the attendant publicity will help give any other victims/survivors the confidence to come forward and get the help they deserve."

Archdiocese followed Vatican playbook: lawsuit 

The claim alleges the Archdiocese of Vancouver followed marching orders from the Vatican for years on how to bury allegations of abuse within its parish.

According to the court documents, there was a firm "policy of silence and secrecy around sexual abuse claims," said to have been intended to shield members of the clergy from punishment.

The office of the Archdiocese of Vancouver is pictured in Vancouver in 2019. The archdiocese said in November it was aware of 36 cases of abuse by its clergy dating back to the 1950s, including 26 involving children. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Children and adults who reported being abused by members of the clergy in Vancouver were, until the mid-'90s, "required to take oaths of secrecy when making complaints to the Archdiocese."

Concerned clergy members who tried to speak out about priests' behaviour were penalized, according to the claim, sometimes to the point of excommunication from the church.

Pope Francis abolished the church's decades-old policy of secrecy in December, making it acceptable — though not mandatory — to report claims of abuse to secular law enforcement officials. The Catholic Church has been rocked by  abuse scandals for the better part of 20 years, since allegations of rampant misconduct were reported out of Boston in early 2002.

The Archdiocese of Vancouver said it commissioned its own 2019 report on clergy sexual abuse in order "to reach and help more victims/survivors, address past wrongs and to show more transparency."

K.S. reported her assault on Jan. 19, 2019.

"She was finally in a place where, I think, she was tired of being silent," said Bespflug. "What she really wants to obtain justice not only for herself, but for all the individuals like her who have lived in silence for so long."

A statue of Pope John Paul II welcomes visitors to the Catholic Archdiocese of Vancouver. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The lawsuit asks for extensive general, special, aggravated and punitive damages against the archdiocese for "reprehensible ... systematic" negligence.

Certifying a class-action lawsuit can take anywhere from months to years. Given the impacts of the pandemic on legal proceedings, it could be an even longer road ahead.

K.S. left the St. Francis of Assisi school and parish around a year after the assault. She has never gone back to the Catholic church.

The lawsuit said she remains "terrified of priests and the power of the Archdiocese."

Full statement from the Archdiocese of Vancouver

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Rhianna Schmunk

Senior Writer

Rhianna Schmunk is a senior writer for CBC News based in Vancouver. Over nearly a decade, she has reported on subjects including criminal justice, civil litigation, natural disasters and climate change. You can send story tips to