Court ruling makes it easier to sue clergy in Quebec

The Toronto Star/October 30, 2010

Montreal - A holdout compared to other provinces in giving sexual abuse victims the benefit of the doubt, Quebec courts will now have to think twice before throwing out cases where the alleged abuse happened many years ago.

In what experts are calling a "partial victory" for victims, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in favour of Shirley Christensen, 37, a Quebec City resident who has been trying to sue the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Quebec for the abuse she endured as a young girl at the hands of a priest.

The priest, Paul-Henri Lachance, pleaded guilty in 2009 to several charges of sexual assault against Christensen. Nearing 80 years old, Lachance was sentenced to 18 months in jail.

The 7-0 decision means that the case will head back to a lower court for trial.

"It's a beautiful victory not only for me," Christensen said in an interview, "but for all other victims of sexual aggression by pedophile priests in Quebec."

Christensen faced a legal roadblock in Quebec, a three-year window to take legal action following the abuse, which doesn't exist in most other provinces.

Christensen intended to sue the archdiocese in 2007 for $250,000 but the Superior Court of Quebec agreed with the church authorities and ruled it inadmissible because the three-year statute of limitations had expired.

The abuse happened between 1979 and 1981, when Christensen was between 6 and 8 years old.

Christensen maintained that when she finally told her parents, at 8 years old, the ardent churchgoers confronted the archdiocese but were told not to call the police. The church said it would handle it internally and moved the priest.

It wasn't until 2006 that Christensen says she made the link between her psychological problems and the abuse.

Her lawyers argue that's when the limitation clock should start because up until then, she was unable to act and neither were her parents, "pausing" the limitation period.

The court disagreed, as did the Quebec Court of Appeal.

However, the Supreme Court on Friday wrote that the trial judge must determine whether "inferences can be drawn that establish either that the limitation did not start to run until 2006 or, possibly, that it was suspended in the circumstances of this case."

"It's a partial victory," said Daniel Gardner, a civil law specialist at Laval University in Quebec City. "It doesn't abolish the limitation, it only said the court must listen to her before making a pronouncement.

"You still have the burden of convincing the judge that, yes, you waited this long, but it can be justified because it was impossible for you to act before."

This onus placed on the victim has been reversed in other provinces - except Prince Edward Island - where statutes of limitations were lifted in cases of sexual abuse.

"In other provinces we presume that the victim wasn't capable to sue until they received help," said Christensen's lawyer, Sébastien Grammond.

While Gardner said the ruling will have little effect on other cases, Grammond argued it might have the practical consequence of encouraging judges to hear victims because they will no longer be able to dismiss cases out of hand due to the statute.

"It will make things easier for victims of sexual abuse," he said.

France Bédard, founder of the Association of Victims of Priests, called the decision "very big" because it could prompt Quebec's government to change the civil code to modify the statute of limitations.

While a Supreme Court case from 1992 involving incest allowed for the suspension of limitation statutes until the victim was capable of understanding the acts and injuries done, it affected only Canadian common law and not Quebec's civil code.

Bédard, who is herself suing the archdiocese over abuse she suffered, said the church, "instead of helping its victims, is paying lawyers hundreds of dollars an hour to weaken its victims. They are defending the indefensible."

For her part, Christensen says she has not been weakened by the legal mountain she has climbed.

"I hope that the church would say, 'We would rather help her,' and offer compensation," she ventured. "But I don't think (it will happen).

"I'm ready to go back to court."

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