Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Time for church to show moral leadership: plaintiff

A plaintiff in one of six new $4.5-million lawsuits against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sault Ste. Marie is calling on the church to show leadership to ensure no other child suffers sexual abuse at the hands of clergy.

Sudbury businessman Thomas Miller, 59, was eight years old when he alleges he was sexually abused by Father Magnus J. Fedy at Scollard Hall, a then all-boy's Catholic school in North Bay.

Miller is one of the plaintiffs in seven new lawsuits in total launched by Ledroit Beckett Litigation Lawyers against two Roman Catholic dioceses and one religious order for historic cases of child sexual abuse by clergy.

Miller and the other plaintiffs, including one woman, sat before reporters at a news conference Monday morning at the Radisson Hotel and spoke about the abuse they said they suffered decades ago.

Miller had to stop speaking and take a sip of water to compose himself as he was overcome with emotion when he said he believed "this sort of thing still exists today."

He called on members of parishes in Sault Ste. Marie diocese to speak up and demand their church leaders stop "side-stepping" allegations of sexual misconduct by clergy.

"This shouldn't happen to a child," said Miller, his voice shaking.

Miller and several other plaintiffs would not allow photographs of them to be taken, but did display pictures of them at the ages at which they allege they were sexually abused.

Lawyer Robert Talach, of London, Ont.-based Ledroit Beckett, said the plaintiffs in the separate lawsuits did not know each other before, but, remarkably, were abused in similar ways, sometimes by the same priests.

The lawsuits are against the Roman Catholic dioceses of Sault Ste. Marie and London, and the religious order, the Congregation of the Resurrection in Ontario. That order had several priests at Scollard Hall at one time.

Six priests are named in the lawsuits, five of whom are dead. The only living priest, Father Gerald Roy, has already been convicted of sexually abusing four altar boys in the 1980s and was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in federal penitentiary.

He lives near Warren and is no longer serving a diocese, although he is still considered a Roman Catholic priest.

Several of the plaintiffs spoke at the news conference of how they came from devout Roman Catholic families and how their faith has been shaken - or destroyed - by the abuse they allege they suffered. Talach said the loss of their faith in the Roman Catholic faith was "devastating" for most of the plaintiffs.

"Where there was once colour, there is now darkness," he told an audience of reporters and friends and family members of plaintiffs at the news conference.

Plaintiff Anita Contant, 60, the only woman among them, said she questions herself daily as a mother and a sister, and suffers from poor self-esteem that has affected her family.

"It's difficult to keep this a secret."

Talach said priests tended to prey on young, smart, devout children. "The most concerning part is, what did the powers that be know at the time? And what did they do?" he asked.

Bishop Jean-Louis Plouffe, the spiritual head of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sault Ste. Marie, was a young priest when most of the alleged sexual abuse occurred.

Plouffe said Monday the church has to be "more transparent and up front" in dealing with such charges.

"I'm sure it's the way to go," said Plouffe.

Four similar civil suits, all for $4.5 million, have been filed by Ledroit Beckett against the Diocese of Sault Ste. Marie for plaintiffs alleging similar abuse. They are in various points of discovery in the legal process.

Plouffe said the church is embarrassed by the lawsuits, but added he is sure that is nothing compared to the hurt the plaintiffs and their families are experiencing.

"People in the pews are hurting" from the lawsuits, said Plouffe, and they have hurt the morale of the entire church.

"At least they (the new claims of sexual abuse) are not recent," said Plouffe.

Plouffe said he did not know that a news conference was being held Monday to announce the lawsuits, although Talach rejects that claim. He said the diocese and Plouffe were contacted about the event and invited to attend.

Plouffe said there is a protocol in the Diocese of Sault Ste. Marie relating to claims of sexual abuse by clergy. It has been revised recently. The policy is not posted on the diocese's website, as it is in many others throughout the province.

Plouffe also said his diocese offers counselling, without prejudice, to people who allege they were sexually abused by priests, provided those people ask for it.

The Diocese of Sault Ste. Marie also has a committee to look into complaints of sexual misconduct by clergy. It serves as an advisory board to him to suggest how sex abuse claims should be dealt with.

Miller said at the news conference that those committees should have sexual abuse victims among their membership.

Plouffe said the final decision for how such claims are dealt with is his to make.

Plouffe said he doesn't think people necessarily understand the legal process and what follows after someone is served with a civil lawsuit.

"The process is clearly defined" as to what you can and cannot do, said Plouffe.

When three plaintiffs came forward with similar claims almost a year ago, Plouffe wrote a letter to be read in all parishes in his diocese. He said he didn't issue a missive this time because there wasn't much more to say.

At the time, Plouffe said he was "deeply saddened" by news of the lawsuits.

"These situations do not leave me indifferent. They are most sensitive and painful for all involved and have an impact on the whole diocese. We will do what is necessary and within our power to see that light be shed on these allegations."

Plouffe said Gerald Roy, who has been convicted of sexual offences against boys and served federal time, has never been reappointed to another parish.

Nor has Father Thomas O'Dell who was convicted years ago and served time for the sexual abuse of a man who became known as John Doe in a multi-million lawsuit against Sault Ste. Marie diocese.

Doe won a settlement of $1.4 million in that case. He said afterward that what he wanted was an apology from Plouffe for the abuse inflicted on him by O'Dell.

Plouffe said Monday in an interview at diocesan headquarters that he has never apologized to Doe because O'Dell denies doing some of the acts for which he was convicted.

Plouffe said, ideally, both the priests who have been accused and their accusers could be present in the same room to discuss the allegations and to reach a point of "reconciliation."
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