How a class-action in B.C. is tied to one of the biggest sex-abuse scandals in Canadian history

The Mount Cashel Orphanage in St. John's, pictured in 1989. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press - image credit)
The Mount Cashel Orphanage in St. John's, pictured in 1989. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press - image credit)

A lawsuit alleging nearly four decades of systemic abuse at two Catholic schools in B.C. has been certified by the courts as a class action, a move lawyers say could clear the way for as many as 65 potential survivors to seek compensation against the Catholic order accused of shuffling the abusers into their schools.

The original claim said the Christian Brothers of Ireland knowingly transferred abusive teachers from a notorious orphanage in Newfoundland to Vancouver College and St. Thomas More Collegiate, where they went on to sexually and physically abuse more children from 1976 to 2013.

In a decision Wednesday, a B.C. Supreme Court justice found a class action would be the best way to move the case forward — rather than having each alleged victim file their own independent lawsuit.

"The decision creates a single lawsuit that can litigate the common issues between all of those people," said lawyer Reidar Mogerman, who represents the alleged victims.

"This is a really important step."

What happened at the Mount Cashel Orphanage?

The lawsuit links back to the Mount Cashel Orphanage in St. John's, where hundreds of vulnerable children were abused for decades by "cruel and sadistic" men charged with their care. Multiple criminal investigations led to a number of convictions.

A public inquiry found senior public servants, church officials, police brass and politicians helped cover up the crimes — cementing the case as one of the largest sex abuse scandals in Canadian history.

Who are the Christian Brothers?

The Christian Brothers of Ireland is a religious community headquartered in Rome. The organization expanded into Canada in the early 1800s.

The order ran hundreds of schools around the world, including the Mount Cashel orphanage before its closure in 1990.

It founded Vancouver College, and St. Thomas More Collegiate in neighbouring Burnaby.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

Which abuses are alleged to have happened in B.C.?

The B.C.-based claim said the Christian Brothers sent six members from Mount Cashel to the Vancouver-area schools between 1976 and 1983.

All six were later convicted of sexually or physically abusing orphans at the Newfoundland facility, with two of them having admitted abuse before they were sent west.

A judge in 2004 found the Catholic order struck a deal with investigators in 1975: the members in question wouldn't face criminal charges for their actions at Mount Cashel in exchange for them leaving the province and seeking treatment.

The lead plaintiff in B.C., Darren Liptrot, claims one of the brothers, Edward English, sexually abused him from 1981 to 1983 while he was a student at Vancouver College in grades 9 and 10.

He said he tried to report the abuse to his vice-principal but was ignored.

None of the allegations has been proven in court and no statements of defence have been filed.


Why was the class-action certified in B.C.?

Since Liptrot filed his claim, his lawyers told the court more than 65 men have come forward claiming they were abused at the Vancouver-area schools by the men sent from Mount Cashel.

Liptrot's lawyer argued a class-action makes it easier for potential victims to seek justice. They said it should be open to those who claim they were abused at any period between 1976 and 2013, when the last of the six men retired.

"There's really significant barriers to victims coming forward and so a class action like this breaks those barriers down," said Mogerman, the plaintiffs' lawyer.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

The defence argued individual trials would be preferred but the judge said lawyers "provided no useful, concrete examples of their alternative model as preferable for systemic abuse cases like this one."

Defence lawyers also argued the class period of 1976 to 2013 would be too long, but the judge disagreed.

The six men sent to B.C. and later convicted of physical or sexual abuse were Joseph Burke, David Burton, Edward English, Edward French, Douglas Kenny and Kevin Short.

The lawsuit says the former students have suffered significant damage including pain and suffering, psychological injuries, addiction issues, the inability to have normal and healthy sexual development and spiritual trauma including loss of faith.

The lawsuit says the plaintiffs want a declaration that they were abused and the defendants are liable for that abuse; an award for damages for negligence; past and future costs of health care; and punitive and aggravated damages.