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Trying to sue the Catholic Church
CBC News Online | March 25, 2004

A Supreme Court of Canada case pitting victims of sexual abuse against the Roman Catholic Church goes all the way back to Newfoundland during the 1960s.

The priest at the centre of the case is Rev. Kevin Bennett, a Roman Catholic priest who was ordained in the 1960s in Newfoundland. From the 1970s to the end of the 1980s, Bennett served at parishes in western Newfoundland, where he sexually abused altar boys. He served nearly five years in prison for his crimes. Thirty-six of his victims – now adults – launched a civil suit seeking compensation for damages. The damages involved millions of dollars.

In July 2000, the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador ordered Bennett to pay damages. Justice Robert Wells attempted to explain who should compensate the victims, and that's when the thorny issue of liability arose, the thorniest part of which is the suggestion that the Roman Catholic Church – the whole ball of wax – might be sued for compensation to the victims.

Wells said Bishop Raymond Lahey of St. George's diocese in western Newfoundland was liable, also the Episcopal Corporation of St. George's Diocese. Wells also said Alphonsus Penney, the former archbishop of St. John's, was negligent because he failed to report the abuse after learning about it in 1979.
  • Penney was found not "vicariously liable" for Bennett's offenses, but was found liable in negligence to the victims sexually assaulted by Bennett.
  • Actions against the Roman Catholic Episcopal Corporation of St. John's were dismissed.
  • The Roman Catholic Episcopal Corporation of St. George's was found vicariously liable to all the victims.
  • No liability was found against the Roman Catholic Church.

On appeal, all claims of personal liability were dismissed:
  • The finding of personal liability against Penney was set aside.
  • The finding of personal liability against Lahey was set aside.
  • The trial judge's dismissal of actions against the Roman Catholic Episcopal Corporation of St. John's was upheld.
  • The trial judge's finding that there was no basis to impose liability on the Roman Catholic Church was upheld.
  • The Roman Catholic Episcopal Corporation of St. George's was found directly liable, but the trial judge's finding of "vicarious liability" was set aside.

The title of the case before the Supreme Court of Canada begins: "Roman Catholic Corporation of St. George's et al. v. John Doe�."

A description of the case says the appeal to the top court says the case focuses on the issue of whether the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador, Court of Appeal, "erred in imposing direct liability upon the Roman Catholic Episcopal Corporation of St. George's in respect of certain sexual assaults�." Also, "Whether the Court of Appeal erred in failing to hold the defendant Roman Catholic Church, an unincorporated association, vicariously liable for the acts of the priest."

The description continues:

"Kevin Bennett, between 1961 and 1989, was [a] Roman Catholic priest in the diocese of St. George's, Newfoundland. During that time, by his own admission, he committed sexual assault on all 36 of the [victims] who commenced civil actions against him and the other defendants."

Some of the testimony at the various trials and appeals has been fascinating. Once, Rev. Francis Morrisey, a canon law expert – canon law consists of rules that govern the Roman Catholic Church – said each diocese is autonomous. He also testified that priests are not employees of the bishop or the diocese, and that Revenue Canada considers priests "independent contractors."

Lawyers representing the Catholic Church also testified that the church "is not an entity capable of being sued."

Lawyers and judges contacted by CBC News Online to comment on the St. George's case cited two phrases they encountered in first year law school. One is "piercing the corporate veil." It applies to various techniques lawyers use to get behind the protective fa�ade of a corporation to successfully sue an individual. As for the culpability of employers in cases such as sexual abuse, lawyers for a corporation – church, hardware chain, whatever – try to put the blame on individuals.

Thus, if a reporter on assignment with a newspaper chain exposes himself to a Girl Guide troop, the chain would argue it's protected as the reporter should be deemed not to be working at the time for his employer but to be "on a frolic of his own."

On March 25, 2004, the Supreme Court of Canada issued its ruling, but the outcome remains unclear.

The court declined to rule on whether the Roman Catholic Church can be held liable for the actions of its priests. In the 9-0 judgment, the court said the evidence was "too weak" to allow it to responsibly rule on such an "important and difficult question."

"The record does not provide the clear picture of the details of the Church's hierarchy or of the relationship between the Church and its constituent parts, necessary to delineate the boundaries of the institution, the nature of its legal status, and its potential liability," the decision read.

In Canada, the Catholic Church is legally incorporated at a diocese level, not at a national level like other religious denominations.

The ruling means abuse victims can sue an individual priest and the specific episcopal corporation he's hired by, but they usually do not have the financial resources of the Church and cannot pay out large settlements.



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