A gavel and a block are pictured on a judge's bench in this illustration picture taken June 9, 2021. CNS photo/Andrew Kelly, Reuters

Quebec class-action suits could spread, lawyer says

  • June 23, 2022

In the past two months, courts gave the go-ahead for class-action lawsuits involving 100 plaintiffs alleging sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Quebec and the Diocese of St. Hyacinthe near Montreal.

A co-counsel in the victims’ suit that bankrupted the Archdiocese of St. John’s says it’s reasonable to expect it might spark similar class action suits against the Church across Quebec.

“It could be a signal to other counsel in Quebec to have a look at other potential cases to see if they’re worth proceeding with,” said Eugene Meehan.

But Meehan, of Ottawa-based Supreme Advocacy law firm, also cautions the Quebec court approvals are only a first step in what could be a protracted process and won’t necessarily lead to the financial chaos that engulfed Catholics in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Meehan said the June 9 authorization by a Superior Court judge in the St. Hyacinthe case does “cast a wide net” in allowing for claims dating back to the 1940s.

“It’s one of the wider ones that I’ve seen but this authorization is just the beginning of the road,” said Meehan. “There could well be a trial where the defense gets to raise all kinds of arguments as in any type of litigation. Settlement negotiations could happen as well.”

Meehan and fellow lawyer Geoff Budden, acting for victims of Mount Cashel, successfully argued the case in a landmark 2020 ruling from the Newfoundland and Labrador Court of Appeal, that the Archdiocese of St. John’s had a “vicarious liability” for the horrific abuse suffered by boys at the orphanage. The decision built on an earlier Supreme Court of Canada ruling that parties with “deeper pockets” could be compelled to pay for past wrongs.

Meehan noted that the overturning of a lower court ruling against the Mount Cashel plaintiffs turned on the single issue of vicarious liability. Although the orphanage was run by the Christian Brothers, the archdiocese “embedded” a monsignor at the institution and thus shared responsibility for a facility it did not technically control.

“At trial, the plaintiffs lost on all counts and at the appeal court, they lost on all counts except one, and that was vicarious liability. We only had to win on one count,” he said.

Meehan stressed that while the Newfoundland and Labrador decision is not binding outside the province, it could have substantial strategic legal influence in Quebec and elsewhere. He added that is why both the Quebec and St. Hyacinthe dioceses would be fully justified in fighting the newly authorized class-action suits as far as necessary through the legal system.

“It’s entirely appropriate for any defendant to fully and actively defend the case on the basis that there is no liability. Like any defendant, the Church should not pay on the basis of ability to pay, but on the basis of liability. There are many steps before liability is proven.”

On June 10, a day after the St. Hyacinthe class action was authorized, eight plaintiffs had already stepped forward to seek collective redress for abuse they allege suffering on Church properties under the control of the diocese. In three cases, those making the allegations did not know the names of their abusers. The diocese itself has refused comment on the approval by Judge Chantal Corriveau.

Less than a month earlier, 92 victims identified 80 alleged abusers, a majority of them priests, in the Archdiocese of Quebec, which is home ground for the Catholic Primate of Canada, Cardinal Gérald Cyprien Lacroix.

The Quebec law firm of Arsenault Dufresne Wee is representing plaintiffs in both cases, though Meehan cautioned that doesn’t necessarily mean the firm is actively seeking complainants or pursuing class-action suits throughout Quebec.

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