Quebec police probe possible cases of child sexual abuse in Jehovah's Witnesses congregation
Investigators seeking other possible victims of two men, Radio-Canada’s Enquête reports
Quebec provincial police are investigating allegations of child sexual abuse by two members of a Jehovah's Witnesses congregation in Mont-Laurier in the Laurentians, Radio-Canada's investigative program Enquête has learned.
Both men have been sanctioned through the church's internal disciplinary process for dealing with allegations of child abuse, but congregation elders did not share their findings with civil authorities.
One of the men being investigated, Michel Courtemanche, who has been expelled from the congregation, was acquitted of charges of sexual assault and indecent assault in 1996.
However, the Sûreté du Québec has renewed its investigation of Courtemanche and has begun investigating another man, former congregation elder Georges Leclerc, based on new evidence from at least seven alleged victims.
Leclerc has been stripped of his status as an elder, but he has not been arrested or charged, and he refused to speak with Enquête.
Courtemanche has not been arrested or charged as a result of the new investigation and denies the allegations against him. In an interview with Enquête, he pointed to his 1996 acquittal.
"My answer is there was a judgment on this based on very precise facts, and I was acquitted," he said.
At least 7 potential victims, police say
Enquête spoke with Pénélope Herbert, the woman whose allegations of repeated sexual assaults starting when she was just 10 led to Courtemanche's 1996 trial.
Carolle Poudrier, now in her mid-40s, also told Enquête of alleged sexual contact by Courtemanche, over a period of months when she was 11.
In the case of Herbert, she said the assaults continued until she was 17 — even after her family moved from Mont-Laurier.
"He would come to our house to say hello and would sleep over," Herbert, now 42, told Enquête. "Those nights, he would come to my room. We're talking total rape, those nights."
Enquête has learned the SQ has interviewed more than 40 people, of whom seven have been identified as potential victims of either Courtemanche or Leclerc.
Four of the seven, including Herbert and Poudrier, have now filed formal complaints with police. SQ spokesperson Martine Asselin told Enquête they're now seeking other possible victims and witnesses.
"We're looking to identify other potential victims who perhaps feel they're alone and aren't ready to talk," Asselin said.
"They should know that investigators are ready to meet with them and witnesses."
Both men were friends
According to Enquête, Leclerc and Courtemanche were friends around the time Herbert's parents lodged an internal complaint with the congregation about the alleged assaults on their daughter.
Leclerc was, as a congregation elder, a senior member of the congregation who is responsible for providing religious guidance and ruling on disciplinary matters.
Enquête said Leclerc allegedly did not speak to Herbert to learn the details of her complaint, as required by Jehovah's Witness protocols in such matters.
Courtemanche was later reprimanded and allowed to remain in the congregation.
Disillusioned with how the Jehovah's Witnesses had handled her complaint, Herbert took her allegations to police in 1995.
Courtemanche remained a Jehovah's Witness after his acquittal but was expelled in 2014, Enquête found, after two other women filed internal complaints alleging he had assaulted them as minors.
Leclerc remains with the Mont-Laurier congregation, but Enquête says he was stripped of his elder duties after at least three women filed complaints internally with the Jehovah's Witnesses, alleging he had assaulted them when they were minors.
Police, youth protection not notified of allegations
According to Enquête, the first time police investigated Herbert's allegations against Courtemanche in the mid-1990s, they were not aware Carolle Poudrier's parents had also alleged Courtemanche had assaulted their daughter.
Poudrier's parents were members of a congregation in Terrebonne, just north of Montreal, and had filed their complaint there — not with Courtemanche's congregation in Mont-Laurier.
Poudrier alleged that Courtemanche, who was working for her dad, would make her sit on his lap so he could caress and tickle her, which made her uneasy. A few months later, he kissed her twice.
"He asked me if I'd ever kissed anyone, and he put his tongue in my mouth. I found that disgusting," Poudrier told Enquête.
After she told her parents and they complained, Poudrier was made to recount what happened to a congregational elder in the presence of her father.
"I was really stressed talking about sexual matters with a man I didn't know, in front of my father. It was embarrassing," Poudrier said.
She said the elder thanked her for telling him what had happened and said that "he was there to take care of it."
In a lawyer's letter to Radio-Canada, the elder in question, John MacEwan, said he knew Poudrier's family but denied meeting with them concerning allegations against Courtemanche.
When asked by Enquête if the Terrebonne congregation had shared the complaint against Courtemanche with his Mont-Laurier congregation, MacEwan refused to answer.
Neither police nor youth protection authorities were ever notified of the alleged assaults on Poudrier.
The Jehovah's Witnesses leadership, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, has given preference to internal judicial procedures and protocols for dealing with matters such as child abuse.
"In some jurisdictions, individuals who learn of an allegation of child abuse may be obligated by law to report the allegation to the secular authorities," an internal memo to elders from 2016 reads.
"In all cases, the victim and her parents have the absolute right to report an allegation to the authorities."
When it comes to sharing information with outside authorities, however, the leadership has insisted on maintaining confidentiality, citing privacy and the ecclesiastical privilege conferred by confessions.
Enquête found there are as many as 30 steps a Jehovah's Witness must take before that person is allowed to testify in court or furnish civil authorities with church documents, when it comes to matters of child abuse.
"When you study the process, you realize it's really a process for avoiding, a system for protecting the reputation of the Jehovah's Witnesses," said Marilou Lagacé, a former Witness interviewed by Enquête.
New instructions regarding allegations of child sexual abuse
A recent royal commission in Australia found the Jehovah's Witness church there had recorded allegations of child sexual abuse against 1,006 members over a 60-year period. Not one allegation had been reported to authorities outside the church.
With pressure mounting in the wake of that royal commission and other allegations of sexual abuse of children in its ranks, on Sept. 1, the Watchtower Society issued new instructions regarding allegations of child sexual abuse.
Those instructions recognize child sexual abuse as a crime and assert that members should be "clearly informed that they have the right" to report an allegation of abuse to police.
"The congregation's handling of an accusation of child sexual abuse is not intended to replace the secular authority's handling of the matter," the Sept. 1 letter reads.
"Therefore, the victim, her parents, or anyone else who reports such an allegation to the elders should be clearly informed that they have the right to report the matter to the secular authorities.
Elders do not criticize anyone who chooses to make such a report."
Based on a report by Radio-Canada's Pasquale Turbide