Supreme Court allows suit against St. Joseph's Oratory over abuse allegations

OTTAWA — The Supreme Court of Canada has rejected a bid by Montreal's Saint Joseph's Oratory to be excluded from a sexual assault class action suit.

The high court today upheld a Quebec Court of Appeal ruling allowing the suit to proceed against the oratory and the Congregation of Holy Cross for alleged sexual abuse.

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The oratory was included in the suit amid allegations that some of the abuse by members of the congregation occurred in the landmark church.

The plaintiff, identified as J.J., served as an altar boy and is one of five alleged victims listed in the class action who say they were assaulted at the oratory. His alleged assailants have since died.

Four of the nine judges found that the oratory should not be part of the lawsuit, saying the case lacks evidence that the oratory's "acts or omissions" allowed assaults to occur.

But writing for the majority, Justice Russell Brown, said there is enough evidence that the oratory's directors "knew or ought to have known about the assaults on children that are alleged to have been committed at the oratory by members of the congregation" to allow a class action to go forward.

In total, the legal action lists 41 victims who were allegedly assaulted by close to 30 members of the congregation over a period of more than 40 years.

The high court was unanimous that even though the alleged abuse against J.J. occurred more than 60 years ago, a suit seeking damages was not prescribed by law. That is because he only became aware of the connection between the alleged assaults and their lasting injury after seeing a 2011 news report about other assaults by congregation members.

In 2013, the Congregation of Holy Cross apologized and paid up to $18 million in a mediated, out-of-court settlement to compensate victims for abuse that occurred at three Quebec institutions, not including the oratory, over a five-decade span.

A spokesman for a victims' rights group has said that settlement prompted more than 40 additional alleged victims to come forward, resulting in the current class action suit.

Alain Arsenault, the lawyer leading the class action, said he is open to negotiating another settlement. "My goal is not to go to the Supreme Court; it's that the victims are compensated so they can live better and heal," he said.

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