Alleged victim of sexual assault seeks records from Vatican's representative in Canada

·5 min read
Harold Vincent Sander, known as Father Placidus, died last October. A former student at a Catholic seminary in Mission, B.C., is suing the Benedictine Monk's estate and the seminary over alleged sexual abuse. (Pax Regis - image credit)
Harold Vincent Sander, known as Father Placidus, died last October. A former student at a Catholic seminary in Mission, B.C., is suing the Benedictine Monk's estate and the seminary over alleged sexual abuse. (Pax Regis - image credit)

A B.C. man who claims he was sexually assaulted as a high school seminarian plans to appear in B.C. Supreme Court Thursday to seek records from the Vatican's representative in Canada about the monk who he claims abused him.

Mark O'Neill wants the court to order the official — known as the Apostolic Nuncio — to give him investigation records and correspondence about allegations of sexual misconduct at the Seminary of Christ the King in Mission.

The application follows the emergence in O'Neill's case of an anonymous letter allegedly sent decades ago to the former head of the abbey that runs the seminary, warning about the now-deceased Benedictine monk at the heart of the lawsuit.

The letter from "former seminarians" claimed Harold Vincent Sander — known as Father Placidus — was "known to have been involved in homosexual activities" with high school students" and suggested "he should be removed from close proximity with minor seminarians."

'A gross miscarriage of justice'

O'Neill is suing the seminary and the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Vancouver as well as Sander's estate and one of the seminary's former college students, who O'Neill claims sexually assaulted him while supervising an overnight field trip in the late '70s.

The fitness trainer is one of three former students who testified against Sander in a criminal case that saw the monk acquitted of sexual assault in December 1997.

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The Apostolic Nuncio is considered as a kind of ambassador for the Vatican.

In the court application, O'Neill's lawyer claims the anonymous letter that raised concerns about Sander was sent via the Apostolic Nuncio in May 1987 — 10 years before Sander went on trial.

The application says the warning "was presumably never disclosed to the police or the Crown" despite the former abbot and the "Apostolic Nunciature having full knowledge of its existence and the possibility of other victims."

"There is undoubtedly more beneath the surface of these letters," the application reads.

"A gross miscarriage of justice resulted."

Diplomatic immunity

According to the Apostolic Nunciature's website, an Apostolic delegation was established in Canada in 1899 and a Nuncio was first appointed in 1969.

The Apostolic Nuncio is described in O'Neill's application as the official presence of the Pope in Canada, advising and working with Canadian bishops "in addition to serving as a diplomat on behalf of the Vatican."

Andrew Medichini/The Associated Press
Andrew Medichini/The Associated Press

A letter sent to the court from Global Affairs Canada earlier this month says the current Apostolic Nuncio, Ivan Jurkovic, enjoys diplomatic immunity — as do the archives of his office.

In the application, O'Neill's lawyer claims foreign immunity does not extend to court proceedings relating "to death or personal or bodily injury."

Allegations of systemic wrongdoing

O'Neill's lawsuit is set for trial in September.

The defendants in the case have all denied O'Neill's allegations.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

O'Neill recently amended his claim against the seminary and the church to include allegations of systemic wrongdoing, citing a culture that allegedly "silenced witnesses, complainants and whistleblowers," enabling perpetrators of abuse "to continue to commit their grievous crimes."

In response, the seminary has denied "the existence of a culture of entrenched clericalism and distorted beliefs within the Roman Catholic Church."

The seminary also claims that, apart from the anonymous warning, "there are no further communications ... concerning the allegations against Sander" between the abbey and the Apostolic Nuncio.

'Disordered thinking'

O'Neill is one of one of two former complainants in the criminal case to bring civil lawsuits against the seminary, the archbishop and Sander's estate.

In the lead-up to trial, hundred of pages of documents have been filed with the court, including partial transcripts of a deposition from the ailing monk in the months before he died.

Pax Regis
Pax Regis

Sander was asked about his admission at trial to a "consensual genital act" with a Grade 12 student in the 1980s when he was in his late 50s or early 60s.

He insisted that the former student was over the age of 18 and said they were in a "state of undress" but could not recall if they were both fully naked.

Sander claims the seminarian masturbated him but said "I never masturbated any seminarian."

"I figured I was a good friend of his and I said, OK, if this is all our friendship means," Sander is quoted as saying.

At a later point in the deposition, in answer to a question from O'Neill's lawyer, he admitted to having "disordered thinking with respect to a curiosity about male genitalia."

'Fraught with frailties'

The court file also includes a copy of the reasons for judgment that saw Sander acquitted of sexually assaulting O'Neill and the two other alleged victims in December 1997.

The judge questioned O'Neill's credibility, in part because of unsubstantiated claims he made to RCMP, accusing the other man who allegedly sexually assaulted him of murdering Father Damusus Payne, a teacher at the seminary who died in a mountain-climbing accident in 1978.

The judge said the evidence against Sander involving activities decades earlier was "fraught with frailties" and left "as many questions as it answers."

"The three complainants all experienced trauma of some sort that needed resolution with the assistance of experts," the judge wrote.

"However, the existence of therapy does not in itself lead to the conclusion that the events occurred as described."

None of the allegations have been proven in court.