Oblate religious order ready to settle out of court with Quebec victims of priests' sexual abuse

Nearly one year after allegations of sexual abuse at the hands of Oblate priests were made public, the Catholic religious order says it is now ready to negotiate an amicable settlement with the victims.

72 claimants in class action suit, involving 17 Oblate priests

Several priests in this photo, taken in the 1980s in the Sept-Îles region, have been named in the class action suit against the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. (Submitted by Institut Tshakapesh)

A Catholic religious order whose members have been accused of sexually abusing generations of First Nations children in Quebec has said it's ready to negotiate an amicable settlement with the victims.

A class-action suit was launched last spring against the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, several months after several women went public with stories of how they were sexually assaulted by Fr. Alexis Joveneau, an Oblate priest who lived and worked among the Innu on Quebec's Lower North Shore for more than four decades.

Joveneau​'s alleged victims told the federal inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIWG) last November how the charismatic and much-admired priest had abused them as children.

Since then, dozens of other Quebecers, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, have come forward to say they were victims of abuse by Joveneau and other Oblate priests.

Rachelle Dominique said was assaulted by three different Oblate priests sent to the Innu community of Pessamit on Quebec's North Shore. (Jean-Pierre Gandin/Radio-Canada)

Lawyer Alain Arsenault, whose firm launched the lawsuit, said it has collected the names of 72 people who say they were assaulted by 17 Oblates who worked in Quebec's Abitibi, Mauricie and North Shore regions.

In a statement issued Friday, the law firm said it is in the process of setting up a meeting with the Oblate congregation to settle the lawsuit out of court.

Decades of silence broken

That news comes one day after Radio-Canada's investigative program Enquête aired a documentary detailing accounts of sexual abuse by 10 different priests in eight remote Innu and Atikamekw communities in Quebec over several generations.

Only one of those priests, Fr. Raynald Couture, was ever charged. Couture was sentenced to 15 months for sexual assault in 2004.

In some instances that Enquête looked into, when Oblate superiors or church officials were told about the abuse, the priests were simply sent to neighbouring communities, where other Indigenous children were abused in turn.

In other cases, as in that of Couture, deeply religious elders in the community insisted on silence for many years.

"The mushums, the kookums [grandmothers and grandfathers], they asked him to stay in the community," said Charles Coocoo of Wemotaci.

Catholic leaders responded quickly and positively to the Enquête report.

"Thank you from the bottom of my heart for your quest for justice for victims of the Oblate missionaries," said Jasmin Lemieux-Lefebvre, spokesperson for Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Quebec City.

"The Church must never again be silent."

The Assembly of Quebec Catholic Bishops released a statement proclaiming its indignation and shame in the wake of the Enquête investigation.

"The most sincere wish of all the bishops is that the truth come out and that the victims should all see justice served," it said. 

Watch Enquête's full report here, in French

Based on report by Radio-Canada's Anne Panasuk