New Brunswick

Diocese of Bathurst wants Aviva Insurance to pay $3.3M

Lawyers for the Diocese of Bathurst have told judge Stephen McNally that the church is seeking $3.3-million to recoup some of the money it paid out to victims of sexual abuse. The diocese has made its final presentation in its civil suit against Aviva Insurance, it's former insurer.

Diocese is suing insurer for part of the settlements it paid to 90 victims of sexual abuse by priests

Retired priest Levi Noel received a sentence of eight years for sex offences. (CBC)

Lawyers for the Diocese of Bathurst have told judge Stephen McNally that the church is seeking $3.3 million to recoup some of the money it paid out to victims of sexual abuse.

Closing arguments were heard Wednesday in a civil suit by the diocese against Aviva Insurance, its former insurer.

In a confidential compensation process, the diocese paid out $5.5 million to 90 victims of abuse by its priests.

Lawyer Chris Blom argued that Aviva Insurance is responsible to help the diocese pay for some of the compensation.

"Aviva drafted the policy, the diocese played no role in it," said Blom.

Blom said the diocese is not in the insurance business, it is merely a customer.

He argues policy language and exemptions from sexual abuse claims did not clearly exist between 1957-1987, when the diocese had a policy with Aviva.

Lawyer Chris Blom is representing the Diocese of Bathurst, arguing Aviva has an obligation to cover some of the costs of compensation to victims of abuse. (CBC)
"Onus rests with the insurer," said Blom. "Where an insurer fails to ask about a matter ... the insurer did not consider the event to be a risk."

He went on to say that Aviva does have policies for unforeseen risk, and that abuse by clergy is exactly that.

Lawyers for Aviva base their case on the fact that bishops within the diocese were aware of abuses dating back to the 1950s and did not report it.

Different attitude in 1950s

Blom told Judge McNally, "Bishops of 1957–83 were men of God. Men who dedicated their entire lives to service of the church."

He said to imply that bishops were doing anything deliberately harmful was "repugnant" and unfair.

Blom brought up examples in court from clergy files of convicted sexual abuser Father Levi Noel.

While a bishop had written that Noel had exhibited "bad conduct to youth," Blom said the files did not explicitly say there was sexual abuse.

Blom said the bishop took immediate action by sending Noel to Trappists, having him monitored by another priest and getting him psychological help.

"He [the bishop] came from a time when people did not understand the damage caused by sexual assault to its victims," said Blom.

"And that it [sexual assault] would result in claims to the diocese."

'Aviva paradox'

Blom told the judge he sees contradictions in the way Aviva chooses to implement its policies with the diocese.

He called it the "Aviva paradox," in reference to a 2003 settlement in which Aviva compensated someone who had been abused by a priest in the Diocese of Bathurst.

He went on to say that "the diocese did not commit acts," it was the priests, and that was an unforeseen risk that the insurance policy should cover.

"There is no evidence that the bishop intentionally took action to cause bodily harm."

'Conspiracy of Silence'

The lawyer for Aviva Insurance began his closing arguments by saying there was a "conspiracy of silence" within the Diocese of Bathurst.

"We know that the bishops of the day had information with respect to ongoing abuse," Charles LeBlond told Judge McNally.

Aviva Insurance defense lawyer Charles LeBlond says the issue is what the diocese knew and when. (Ian Bonnell/CBC)
That knowledge by the church is the basis of Aviva's case. In his closing arguments, LeBlond focused a lot on Father Levi Noel.

"We know that he is the worst of the offenders," said LeBlond.

LeBlond said 44 people came forward in the Bastarache compensation process and accused father Noel of abuse, dating back to the 1950s. 

"By transferring the priest, it gave him the means to re-offend," said LeBlond." They [the bishops] ought to have known he would reoffend."

LeBlond went over letters written by the bishops at the time Noel was a priest within the Diocese.

While none of the letters specifically stated that Noel committed any sexual abuses or assaults, LeBlond gave examples of what classifies as a conspiracy to keep quiet.

In one letter, a bishop wrote Noel had been transferred to "the northern most part of the province," to a part of New Brunswick where no one would know his past.

LeBlond said the bishop absolutely forbid Noel from spending his vacation with young boys.

"Clearly he is saying don't reoffend," said LeBlond.  "The Bishop putting a cleric ahead of vulnerable children and impoverished families."

No Coverage

Since the church decided on its own to participate in a compensation process to victims, LeBlond said Aviva does not cover voluntary payment when there is no legal action or threat of action.

The diocese argued abuse by priests is an unforeseen insurance risk, but LeBlond argued the voluntary process means the church is committing to liability.

 "To suggest that should trigger their insurance company to pay for it, it's just not there," said LeBlond.