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Catholic church cannot be sued

 

Ruling confirms Church’s immunity to sex-abuse lawsuits.

 

 

Janice Tibbetts

Canwest News Service

Friday, March 26, 2004

Page A7

 

OTTAWA - The Roman Catholic Church has retained its immunity from sexual-abuse lawsuits after the Supreme Court of Canada refused to hold it liable for the actions of a priest who assaulted boys in Newfoundland.

OTTAWA • The Roman Catholic Church has retained its immunity from sexual-abuse lawsuits after the Supreme Court of Canada refused to hold it liable for the actions of a priest who assaulted boys in Newfoundland.

However, the Episcopal Corporation of St. George’s — where the offences occurred — can now be sued for damages arising from the actions of Reverend Kevin Bennett.

Rev. Bennett confessed in 1989 to sexually assaulting his altar boys when they were as young as 11, sometimes repeatedly over several years, while he worked in rural Newfoundland parishes from the 1960s through to the 1980s.

St. George’s had asked the Supreme Court for liability to be passed on to the entire Catholic organization, which has an estimated 13 million members in Canada and more than one billion worldwide.

But in a unanimous ruling, Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin wrote, “The record here is too weak to permit the court to responsibly embark on the important and difficult question of whether the Ro man Catholic Church can be held liable in a case such as this.”

The result of the ruling is that the Catholic Church in Canada retains its sue-free status at a time when thousands of sexual- abuse allegations are arising.

The altar boys, who filed their suit more than 15 years ago, can seek damages from St. George’s, now the Supreme Court has decided who can be held responsible.

“There are no legal issues left. The question now is how much they have to pay,” said Gregory Stack, the lawyer for 35 of the 36 complainants.

The ruling reinforces a decision five years ago in which the Supreme Court ruled that employers can be held legally responsible when their workers sexually abuse children in their care. The 1999 ruling refused to exempt non-profit organizations and charities.

The Newfoundland Court of Appeal ruled two years ago that both Rev. Bennett and the Episcopal Corporation of St. George’s were liable, rejecting the diocese’s argument that the priest was ‘on a frolic of his own” outside of his official role.

Described in court documents as a “mover and shake? in the remote communities in which he worked, Mr. Bennett would sometimes pay his altar boys or buy them dirt bikes after having sex with them.

He is now a 70-year-old retiree who continues to draw a pension from the diocese after being sentenced to four years in prison for his crimes in 1980.

The federal government intervened in the case in a failed effort to convince the court to strip the Catholic Church of its immunity to create ‘an incentive for change.” The Justice Department claimed a major problem with legally shielding the Catholic Church is that its “consistent response” to widespread abuse claims is to transfer its clergy to other churches.

While other major religious organizations in Canada are incorporated nationally, including the United and Anglican churches, the Catholic Church is only incorporated at the local level of the diocese.

The government says this makes it harder to negotiate with the Catholics in settling abuse claims at Indian residential schools.

St. George’s argued the diocese cannot be held legally responsible for sexual abuse because its power is limited to being the official landowner for the Catholic Church.

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops countered that it would be unfair to hold the Ro man Catholic Church liable for the actions of a single priest and his diocese.

Canwest News Service