Church's immunity to sex-abuse lawsuits.
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
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
But in a unanimous ruling,
Chief Justice Beverley
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
The altar boys, who filed
their suit more than 15 years ago, can seek damages from
"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.
in court documents as a "mover and shake?
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
The government says this
makes it harder to negotiate with the Catholics in settling abuse claims at
Indian residential schools.
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.