Cardinal Gérald Cyprien Lacroix.

Editorial: Caught in legal crossfire

  • February 15, 2024

Those with keen eyes for systemic abuses within the legal world might turn their gazes on a class action lawsuit that has left publicly hanging two Canadian Roman Catholic Cardinals.

Both Cardinal Gerard Cyprien Lacroix and his predecessor as Archbishop of Quebec City, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, have been “named,” some 18 months apart, in such a suit against the archdiocese. In nothing that follows do we comment on, much less argue for, either their guilt or innocence. To do so is impossible since the legal actions naming them are civil, not criminal matters. Neither summary not indictable convictions will be outcomes.

Likewise, we pass no opinion on the truthfulness of the allegations or their denials. In Lacroix’s case, it would again be impossible. The specifics of the case made out against him to date are substantially less than sparse. All we know is that an unnamed complainant has come forward with a statement that about 35 years ago Lacroix, not yet a priest, touched her inappropriately. So far, the nature of the inappropriateness remains inscrutable.

In Ouellet’s “naming,” the complainant let her identity be made public. She has also offered sufficient detail for the Cardinal to respond with a $100,000 defamation suit of his own. As is so often the case, naming of names devolves, however unintentionally, into obliteration of reputations. There is where the potential for development of abuse within the system deserves our attention.

In June 2022, lawyer Eugene Meehan told The Catholic Register that recent court approvals for class-action lawsuits against the Archdioceses of Quebec and St. Hyacinthe could spread well beyond the 100 plaintiffs alleging clergy sexual abuse. Meehan, one of the principal lawyers in a historic legal action that bankrupted the Archdiocese of St. John’s, called the judicial authorization for the suits “a wide net.”

The wide net was, in fact, already widening. A day after the initial suit was filed, eight more people stepped forward to sue for abuse. Three reportedly did not know the names of their abusers. By August, Cardinal Ouellet was included as a defendant in a suit filed by the firm of Arsenault, Dufresne, Wee, which represented plaintiffs in the other legal action as well. The firm said the woman naming Ouellet sought legal counsel after reading about the initial suit on the Internet.

There is no reason to doubt that is true. Yet here we are 19 months later, and Quebec’s two Cardinals are in the “naming” net of legal actions. Worse, the very non-criminal nature of the legal actions against them ups the ante against their names ever being cleared.

As Eugene Meehan told The Register in 2022, the Archdiocese of Quebec could “go to trial where the defense gets to raise all kinds of arguments as in any type of litigation.” But, “settlement negotiations could happen as well.”

The reason for negotiation rather than litigation, he said, is that the lawsuits are more about the liability of the institution, less the culpability of individuals. “Netting” two Cardinals is a powerful opening gambit for establishing highest level for responsibility of the Archdiocese in terms of harms done and damages owed.

Such settlement negotiations in June 2023 led to the Archdiocese of Montreal paying about $15 million to 60 victims of clergy sexual abuse dating back to 1940. Names of complainants remain confidential. The Church skipped the risk/reward dice roll of fighting the class action suit in open court. But as Register reporter Anna Farrow wrote, the firm of Arsenault, Dufresne, Wee “shaved off about 20 per cent — or more than $2.7 million” of the settlement.

Nothing is improper about that. The labourer deserves his wages, and lawyers labour, too. Yet there remains something concerning when the essential process of rooting out and punishing clerical sexual abuse can become confused in the public eye with legal processes driven by ever-larger payouts. The concern should be eye opening when the result includes pre-emptive shredding of reputations and potential life-long presumed guilt.

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