Ottawa church sues pastor who committed sex crime

The Globe and Mail, Canada/January 11, 2006
By Greg McArthur

In what lawyers are calling an unusual legal tactic, an Ottawa church is suing its former youth pastor, a convicted sex offender.

The Calvin Christian Reformed Church, along with its insurance company, is seeking $150,000 from Herbert de Ruyter, who recently pleaded guilty to sexually exploiting a member of the congregation when she was a teenager.

Legal experts say the lawsuit is a new offensive for churches that have been haunted by sex scandals and are in financial ruin because of multimillion-dollar settlements with victims.

"I've never seen that happen in the United States in all my research," said Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston lawyer who represents about 300 people who claim they were sexually abused by Catholic priests across Massachusetts.

According to the statement of claim, the Ottawa church and the Royal & SunAlliance insurance company paid the victim a settlement and are seeking restitution from Mr. de Ruyter. The church is relying on the principle that the person who caused the damage "ought to bear responsibility for the losses caused," the claim states.

Mr. de Ruyter, who has been deposed from his position within the church, could not be reached for comment.

Officials with the church won't say how much the settlement hurt them financially -- "It's been a betrayal to everyone in the church and the pain runs deep," is all Rev. Ken Gehrels would say -- but in recent years, many religious institutions across North America have gone broke from such settlements.

In the past two years, the Catholic Archdiocese of Portland has filed for bankruptcy protection, and so did the Archdiocese of Tucson, Ariz., before it settled with creditors. The Catholic diocese of Spokane, Wash., has offered to sell its headquarters and the home of its bishop to come up with the money for massive settlements in sex-assault cases.

Victims and churches have been reluctant to sue priests and other religious officials because they usually don't have much money, lawyers say. Catholic priests, for instance, take a vow of poverty.

Lawyers for the Ottawa church and the insurance company must have discovered that Mr. de Ruyter, who has moved to Abbotsford, B.C., has valuable assets, Mr. Garabedian said. But the lawyer questioned how the church can pursue Mr. de Ruyter after it has paid the victim for damages.

"In other words, they don't have clean hands," he said.

But John Morris, a lawyer who represented the victims of an Anglican Church choirmaster in Kingston said the church's responsibility isn't so clear-cut. The Ottawa victim agreed to the settlement in exchange for releasing the church of any liability. Plus, even if the church was "vicariously" liable for the crime, it doesn't mean it allowed Mr. de Ruyter to abuse the girl, Mr. Morris said.

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