Politics

Inuit leader asks Pope Francis to intervene in case of priest accused of sex assault

The leader of the Inuit delegation meeting privately with Pope Francis on Monday has called on the pontiff to personally intervene in the case of a fugitive Oblate priest accused of sexually assaulting children in Nunavut.

Father Johannes Rivoire is facing a Canada-wide warrant for his arrest

Inuit leader calls on Vatican to take 'action'

3 months ago
Duration 1:29
Natan Obed, the leader of the Inuit delegation, says Inuit want this new relationship with the Roman Catholic Church to be based on action.

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

The leader of the Inuit delegation meeting privately with Pope Francis on Monday has called on the pontiff to personally intervene in the case of a fugitive Oblate priest accused of sexually assaulting children in Nunavut.

CBC News has learned that Father Johannes Rivoire is facing a new Canada-wide warrant for his arrest. Mounties received a complaint in September 2021 about sexual assaults alleged to have occurred about 47 years ago, says a statement sent by Nunavut RCMP following the Inuit delegation's meeting with the Pope.

Rivoire now lives in Lyon, France. He was never tried on charges in Canada because he returned to France in the early 1990s. France does not extradite French nationals.

Natan Obed, president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, asked Pope Francis to help bring Father Johannes Rivoire back to Canada.

"I would ask you in your capacity as the head of the Catholic Church to speak with Johannes Rivoire and direct him to return to Canada to stand trial for the harms he has done," Obed told the Pope.

"I understand that this action may not be successful, for many reasons. In that event, I would ask you to use your influence with the relevant authorities in France to have Rivoire extradited to Canada or tried in France."

Father Johannes Rivoire is pictured in Arviat in 1979. The leader of the Inuit delegation that privately met with Pope Francis asked the pontiff to intervene in the case of Rivoire, who is accused of sexually assaulting children, but was never tried for charges. (Library and Archives Canada)

Rivoire, 93, was charged on February 23, 2022 with sexual assault, according to the Nunavut RCMP statement.

The Public Prosecution Service of Canada said it is alleged that between Jan. 1, 1974 and Dec. 31, 1979 Rivoire indecently assaulted a female person contrary to section 149 of the Criminal Code.

A publication ban is in place to protect the identity of the complainant.

Canadian bishop says church needs to 'address this'

Obed told CBC News ahead of the meeting that, of all the requests he planned to make of Pope Francis — for a papal apology for residential schools, for the church to pay reparations to survivors and for the disclosure of all residential school documents — this one might have the most impact.

"We would like to see those victims have semblance of justice and the families of the deceased victims also see some level of accountability," he said.

Pope Francis meets with Inuit delegates at the Vatican on Monday, March 28, 2022. (Canadian Press/HO-Vatican Media )

Calgary Archbishop William McGrattan, who was in the room to witness the meeting between the Pope and Inuit delegates, said Pope Francis understands the importance of Obed's request.

"The church needs to address this in a forthright manner," McGrattan told a press conference following the private audience.

"This is not just one isolated case ... If there are allegations that someone has committed this abuse, they need to be brought to justice and the church should not stand in the way."

Oblates encourage priest to cooperate with authorities

Father Ken Thorson, leader of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate in Canada, told CBC News he has contacted Obed to express sympathies for the alleged victims and to provide support to the Inuit community. He said Rivoire should turn himself in to the authorities.

"We encourage Johannes Rivoire to do what he should have done long ago — cooperate with police and make himself available for the legal process, if not in Canada, then in France," Thorson said.

Thorson said he also sent a letter to Justice Minister and Attorney General David Lametti with a similar message. 

He said the Oblates remain open to sharing records or files, as requested. Should any new allegations or evidence to come to light, he said, the information would be "promptly turned over to the proper authorities."

Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami President Natan Obed, who leads the national body representing Inuit, said he believes Pope Francis can play a personal role in bringing justice to the victims of Father Johannes Rivoire. (Gregorio Borgia/AP)

Obed said he believes Pope Francis can play a personal role in bringing about justice.

"If he would take the time to tell Father Rivoire to go to Canada, then perhaps that would be successful in a way that no other body could," Obed said.

"He has a unique place at this point in time to help Inuit and I hope that he chooses to do so."

The 'cost of inaction'

Rivoire spent time in several Nunavut communities from the 1960s on and returned to France in 1993.

In a 2017 assessment, the Public Prosecution Service of Canada concluded that "there was no longer a reasonable prospect of conviction regarding the charges" and "continuing the prosecution was no longer in the public interest." 

WATCH | Archbishop responds to Natan Obed's demand:

Pope heard Indigenous delegates' calls for justice, archbishop says

3 months ago
Duration 0:39
Calgary Archbishop William McGrattan responds to Inuit leader Natan Obed's request for Pope Francis to intervene personally in the case of Father Johannes Rivoire.

The RCMP issued a warrant for Rivoire's arrest in 1998; that warrant was cancelled in 2018 following the decision to stay the charges. The fact that France does not extradite its citizens appears to have been a key factor in the decision. 

Last year, Lametti said that while he couldn't resurrect the stayed charges, "there is always the possibility that further evidence might be brought forward by other complainants or other witnesses."

In a statement to CBC News, Lametti's office said the Department of Justice can't confirm or deny whether Canada is in touch with France regarding the extradition of Rivoire due to the confidential nature of state-to-state communications.

The office said that, generally speaking, the department initiates extradition proceedings following a request from provincial or federal prosecutors.

Obed told CBC News he's spoken to Lametti's office, which he said has pledged to support efforts to bring Rivoire to trial.

"There is a cost of inaction," Obed said.

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools or by the latest reports. A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Olivia Stefanovich

Senior reporter

Olivia Stefanovich is a senior reporter for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau based in Ottawa. She previously worked in Toronto, Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. Connect with her on Twitter at @CBCOlivia. Story tips welcome: olivia.stefanovich@cbc.ca.

now