The secret life of 'one of the most prolific sexual abusers in Canadian history'

The pedophile priest at the centre of a Nova Scotia class-action lawsuit was one of the worst child abusers in this country’s history, the lawyer filing the notice of action says.

Pedophile priest at centre of Nova Scotia class-action lawsuit sexually abused more than 100 kids in Ontario

George Epoch sits surrounded by students he taught in the 1950s, a few years before he allegedly sexually assaulted a Nova Scotia boy. (Submitted by Dorio Lucich)

The pedophile priest at the centre of a Nova Scotia class-action lawsuit was one of the worst child abusers in this country's history, the lawyer filing the notice of action says.

George Epoch died in 1986 with his name publicly unblemished. But John McKiggan of the Halifax law firm McKiggan Hebert said the Jesuit Fathers of Upper Canada paid more than 100 victims of Epoch's abuse in Ontario alone over the next decade.

"He's likely one of the most prolific sexual abusers in Canadian history," McKiggan said.

McKiggan filed a notice of action to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Halifax-Yarmouth Thursday, informing them he was filing a class-action lawsuit on behalf of one of Epoch's alleged victims in Nova Scotia. The diocese said it condemns all sexual abuse and makes "a sincere attempt to do the right thing by way of the victims and achieve an appropriate and fair settlement for established claims."

McKiggan expects more claimants to come forward. The Ontario abuse happened in the 1970s and 1980s; the Nova Scotia allegation dates to the early 1960s.

'He was an evil man'

Mark Handelman is a health-law lawyer with Whaley Estate Litigation in Toronto. In 1994, he worked with Epoch's victims from his time as priest on the Cape Croker and Saugeen First Nations in Ontario. Cape Croker is now called the Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation

"I learned he was an evil man who abused children," Handelman said Friday. "He was the priest. He had as much trust as any other priest, and in my view more, because of the vulnerable population he served."

News reports from 1994 noted that while he was alive, Epoch was viewed in the general public as a wonderful Christian who doted on children, especially the altar boys.

He was known to be generous, offering money to those in need and sheltering kids in times of trouble.

But victims later revealed that he plied them with cigarettes and candy and offered them his own bed. The boys reported waking up to find the naked priest on top of them.

His earliest Ontario victims were becoming adults as the big man lay dying of a chronic heart condition. They began to speak the truth about him, and those voices increased after he died in 1986 on Manitoulin Island.  

Boys often fled dangerous home situations to the apparent safety Epoch offered at St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church in Cape Croker, Ont. (Google Streetview)
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Handelman said the way Epoch chose his victims deepened the damage. Epoch was pastor at St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church in Cape Croker between 1972 and 1983. He often abused boys who were fleeing violent homes and seeking safety in his arms.  

"Imagine your father getting violent when he gets drunk and being sent for safety by your mother to a priest that you're supposed to be able to trust as a man of God — and instead of being trustworthy, he is an abuser," Handelman said.

"It's particularly upsetting because most frequently these children were sent to Father Epoch because their parents were all victims of the residential school system."

Victims devastated by abuse

Handelman said many of Epoch's Ontario victims lived in poverty and came from unstable homes, increasing the damage he caused as he targeted the most vulnerable.

Many forever lost trust in the church, fell out of school, and did worse in life than they would have if he had helped them, he said. At least one took his own life, leaving behind a grieving family.

Handelman said many of the victims didn't want to tell him what had happened in any detail, but, for most, the attacks were repeated over a long period of time.

"It's clear that the Jesuits and the church protected Father Epoch instead of their congregants and the members of the church and that is an absolute heartbreak," he said. "I wonder between the 60s and the 90s, where he had other victims along the way? The church protected him and many dozens of people paid that price."

Handelman said his files on Epoch were shredded years ago.  "I wish I could shred the memories that he brings back," he said.

He remembers something one of his clients said when discussing the settlement. Some people in the Jesuit organization had expressed concerns about the amount of money going to the victims.

"He looked at me and said the Pope has a big hat. Let him take a collection in the Vatican. And if he has to, he can sell some art."

George Epoch stands in the quad of Loyolla College in this 1957 photo. (Submitted by Dorio Lucich)