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Catholic Church escapes liability

Sex assault ruling maintains immunity

Janice Tibbetts , with files from Daryl Slade , Calgary Herald

CanWest News Service, with files from Calgary Herald

Friday, March 26, 2004
Page A10

The Roman Catholic Church dodged a bullet in the Supreme Court of Canada on Thursday when the court refused to decide whether the unincorporated entity should be stripped of its immunity from sexual abuse lawsuits.

The unanimous decision means that the Catholic Church is effectively off the hook for the actions of Rev. Kevin Bennett, a Newfoundland priest who sexually assaulted three dozen altar boys over more than 20 years.

Instead, the ruling assigned blame to the Episcopal Corporation of St. George's -- the local incorporated diocese -- ruling that it is legally liable.

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.

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

The result of the ruling is that the Catholic Church in Canada -- for now -- 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 that 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.

Vaughn Marshall, a Calgary lawyer representing several hundred aboriginal residential schools cases in Alberta , said there is no direct link between this case and the Alberta cases.

Marshall said the real problem in Alberta is that over 4,200 cases have been frozen in limbo while a half-dozen test cases very slowly wind their way through the Court of Queen's Bench, without any assurance from any of the defendants that they will consider themselves bound by the ultimate test case results -- the final determination of which is likely four to five years down the road -- in resolving.

"Whether the Roman Catholic (Church) worldwide is a defendant or not should make no difference to the plaintiffs in the residential school cases because once a survivor gets a judgment from the Court of Queen's Bench of Alberta, that survivor should be able to collect 100 cents on the dollar from the federal Crown," he said.

"It will be up to the federal Crown to decide whether to pursue any of the churches that remain in the Alberta litigation for a contribution towards the amount Canada will have already paid the victim."