Montreal religious school to pay record $18M to sex-abuse victims

Montreal Gazette/October 6, 2011

Montreal -- In what is believed to be the largest-ever payout in Canada by a religious order, a Montreal private school and its religious owners have agreed to pay their victims $18-million for decades of sexual abuse committed by members.

After denying and covering up for decades widespread sexual abuse, Congregation de Ste. Croix and Notre Dame also have apologized unequivocally for acts by teachers and school employees "that should never have happened."

Parents who entrusted their children to the boys private boarding school facing the iconic St. Joseph's Oratory — also owned by the brothers — will be eligible for $10,000 in compensation for the betrayal. Former students, and their parents, of two other Quebec schools run by the brothers also will be eligible for damages.

The out-of-court settlement was signed Thursday morning, months after victims sought permission from Quebec Superior Court to file a class-action suit.

It's the first time — aside from an apology one year ago — the order has taken responsibility for the actions of its wayward members, many of whom are living with impunity, expense- and tax-free in a large home in Laval, near Montreal. Montreal police opened an investigation a year ago into the abuse but have yet to make any arrests.

When the Montreal Gazette approached the order's provincial superior, Father Jean-Pierre Aumont, three years ago with irrefutable evidence about the abuse, he brushed it off as intimidation and blackmail by a former religious brother who wasn't happy with the financial package he'd negotiated before his departure.

Wilson Kennedy, who left Holy Cross in 2007, was then served with a legal notice to turn over any documents he had and to maintain his loyalty to the order.

"I can assure you that the Congregation of Holy Cross acts with diligence and deals seriously with situations brought to our attention in which one of its members or employees has acted improperly," Aumont wrote in a letter to The Gazette, after refusing to meet with a reporter in person.

"We have taken necessary steps and co-operated with authorities in the past when made aware of such situations."

But internal documents — some that come from as high up as the Vatican — show that was not the case. The order's own longtime lawyer, Emile Perrin, warned its leadership on a number of occasions about the "time bomb" that, if not dealt with, could ultimately spell financial ruin through litigation and land some of its members in jail.

Other documents show that some victims were paid — one as much as $250,000 — to keep silent. Former student Rene Cornellier tried in vain, before his death in 1994, to convince the school to put an end to the abuse of which he was a victim in the 1970s.

As part of the settlement, the Rene Cornellier Foundation will be set up, from which a $5,000 donation will be given annually for 20 years to an organization that helps children. Initially, the money was to cover an annual scholarship to College Notre Dame, but Cornellier's father opposed that.

The deal covers all those who were sexually abused at three schools run by the Catholic brothers: College Notre Dame between Sept. 1, 1950 and July 1, 2001; College de St. Cesaire, southeast of Montreal, between Sept. 1, 1950 and July 1, 1991 and Notre Dame a Pohenegamook, northeast of Quebec City, between Jan. 1, 1959 and Dec. 31, 1964.

But it doesn't deal with alleged abuse in other institutions where the brothers were present.

Internal documents, obtained by The Gazette, show that in January 1998, Perrin was warning the order about Brother Yvan Sarrasin, who had a reputation for trading alcohol for sex with former prisoners at a halfway house, sexually abusing the handicapped and keeping a male lover for years at the order's expense.

"It appears that none of your predecessors thought it a good idea to remedy a situation that has become, today, a mockery of religious life," Perrin wrote to the provincial superior at the time, Reginald Robert. "If it continues unchecked it will increasingly become a real financial threat for the Brothers of Holy Cross."

Perrin, who worked for the order for more than two decades, called Sarrasin the "worst offender." And despite his strong urgings to move Sarrasin as far away from Laval or Montreal ("his two hunting territories") as possible, Sarrasin is in the brothers' large, comfortable retirement home in Laval.

"I assure you, without exaggeration, that as a layman and lawyer, and I have seen a lot in my 22 years of practice, that I am shocked by this brother's blatant neglect of his vows, by his almost total indifference to the impact his actions could have on the financial life of the order and its reputation, and the deceit which he continues to display."

A letter, dated April 5, 2004, shows that even the Superior General in Rome, Hugh Cleary, was aware of sexually abusive brothers.

"In the order at large, we have to be careful because of the public scandals in the media and the possibility of litigation that could have devastating effects on the economic state of the order in accomplishing its mission," he wrote in a letter to the provincial superior, lamenting the "continuing bad sexual behaviour" of a brother.

College Notre Dame, which is now a coed private school with 1,600 students and no boarders, was founded by the brothers in 1869 but the last brother to teach there left in 1997. One person on the seven-member board of directors is a Holy Cross priest.

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