Sex abuse claim sparks lawsuit against Catholic diocese in Nova Scotia

A man who says he was sexually abused by a priest as a boy in Halifax in the 1960s has filed a class-action lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Halifax-Yarmouth.

Legal action against Halifax-Yarmouth diocese could uncover other allegations, lawyer says

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

A man who says he was sexually abused by a priest as a boy in Halifax in the 1960s has filed notice that he is planning a lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Halifax-Yarmouth.

His lawyer believes if certified by the Nova Scotia Supreme Court, the class-action lawsuit could eventually involve many more sex abuse claimants.

"It seems likely to me that there are hundreds, perhaps many hundreds, of potential victims out there," lawyer John McKiggan, of the Halifax law firm McKiggan Hebert, said Thursday. 

The lead plaintiff in the case is Douglas Champagne, who in court documents claims he was abused by priest George G. Epoch while he was an altar boy at Canadian Martyr's Church on Inglis Street.

Boy sought counselling after father left

The lawsuit says Champagne's father abandoned his family in 1960 and Douglas Champagne, then eight, was sent to Epoch for counselling. 

"He came from a vulnerable family — single mom, a number of kids. And his mom wanted him to join the church and become an altar boy because she thought it would be good for him," McKiggan said.

In court documents, Champagne says he became a "knight of the altar" in 1962 and that Epoch asked him to stay one day after the other boys left. Champagne says Epoch told him he loved him and sexually assaulted him in the garment room of the church, and in Epoch's room at the priests' dormitory.

The lawsuit says the abuse started at Canadian Martyr's Church in Halifax's south end. The church was sold in 2016 and the building knocked down in 2017. (Brian MacKay/CBC)

The alleged abuse went on for months, Champagne says. The lawsuit says it often took place at the residence where all the priests live. 

"Other priests that lived at the residence looked at Douglas with a combination of disgust and sympathy," the notice of action filed with lawsuit claims. "They did not lift a finger to prevent the abuse that they knew or ought to have known was taking place."

Epoch was eventually transferred, but Champagne says Epoch continued to send him love letters. Champagne travelled around Canada and returned to Nova Scotia in 1972 but left because of the memories it brought up. He now lives in B.C.

Canadian Martyrs church has since merged with another congregation and the church building has been torn down. Epoch died in Ontario in 1986.

According to the Nova Scotia Justice Department's 2002 Kaufman Report, Epoch sexually abused many male and female children on First Nations reserves during his time in Ontario. The Jesuit Fathers of Upper Canada, the order Epoch belonged to, found "an extensive history of sexual abuse by the late priest" and offered a public apology in 1992. They eventually reached a financial settlement with those victims. 

John McKiggan of Halifax law firm McKiggan Hebert is handling the class-action lawsuit. (CBC)

McKiggan acted on behalf of sex-abuse victims in a 2009 $16-million settlement with the Diocese of Antigonish. He said 142 victims received compensation for abuse by priests. That case began with a single complainant but prompted dozens of people to come forward with similar allegations against several priests, dating back 60 years. 

'We know there are others'

Since the Halifax-Yarmouth diocese is twice the size of the Antigonish diocese, he expects a proportionate number of victims to step forward.

"There is no reason to believe that the Halifax-Yarmouth diocese ran its affairs any differently than the Antigonish diocese did. The policies were the same," he said.

"We already know that there have been a number of priests publicly who have been convicted. We know there are others who have been assaulted [and] not been made public."

Priests Angus McRae, Edouard Josepth Theriault, Robert MacDougall, and Albert LeBlanc all pleaded guilty between 1980 and 2012 to sexually abusing young parishioners while working in the Halifax-Yarmouth diocese.

McKiggan said the decision to launch a class-action lawsuit is linked to efforts by the Archdiocese of Halifax-Yarmouth to allow it to divide its assets among dozens of parish corporations.

McKiggan said that would possibly leave victims unable to collect on judgments made against the archdiocese as a whole.

"It would mean quite possibly that they would have no means of recovering compensation for the harms and losses that they suffered at the hands of sexually abusive priests," he said.

McKiggan said the next step is to apply to the Nova Scotia Supreme Court to certify the class-action lawsuit.

Archdiocese 'condemns sexual abuse'

He said litigation could drag on for years, depending on how the Archdiocese of Halifax-Yarmouth proceeds. The archdiocese learned of the lawsuit Thursday afternoon and told CBC News it is reviewing it with its legal advisers.

"The Archdiocese of Halifax-Yarmouth condemns sexual abuse of all forms," John Williams, vicar-general of the archdiocese, said in a statement Thursday. 

"The archdiocese has an established process in place to address claims brought for any historic sexual abuse. The archdiocese makes a sincere attempt to do the right thing by way of the victims and achieve an appropriate and fair settlement for established claims."

He said the bill to reorganize the archdiocese, which was withdrawn, was not an attempt to avoid financial responsibility for victims of sexual abuse. He called such claims "false, misleading and irresponsible."

Williams said he could not speak about the specific allegations while the matter was before the courts. 

With files from Jon Tattrie