Quebec victims of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic clergy are calling on Pope Francis to deliver "swift justice" to them ahead of his visit to Canada at the end of the month.
In an open letter to the pontiff made public Thursday, lawyers for victims said more than 2,500 people who were abused by clergy are waiting to obtain justice before the courts in Quebec.
"Some religious congregations use manoeuvres that we believe are contrary to the interests of victims," said the letter signed by victims and their lawyers. "These strategies have resulted in delays of more than 10 years in some cases."
Pope Francis is scheduled to visit Canada July 24-29, travelling to Alberta, Quebec and Nunavut. A major theme of his visit is reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples for the abuse suffered in residential schools — many of which were run by Catholic clergy.
But non-Indigenous victims of sexual and physical abuse in Quebec are hoping to also draw attention to other crimes connected to the Catholic Church.
"The victims expect more than prayers," the letter to the Pope said. "They expect concrete actions. Can your Holiness act to bring swift justice to those who were sexually assaulted by members of your clergy by giving precise instructions to the dioceses and religious congregations of Quebec."
In a statement, Cardinal Gérald Cyprien Lacroix, the archbishop of Quebec, acknowledged receipt of the letter. Lacroix, who is overseeing the Quebec portion of the papal visit, said he would ensure it gets to the Pope.
“I will be a messenger, bringing this letter personally to the Holy Father," Lacroix said. "We know that he is sensitive to the pain of victims of abuse and convinced that truth and justice must come first."
Lacroix said while the papal visit is primarily to meet with Indigenous communities, "the common thread of his visit will be the journey towards truth, justice, healing, reconciliation, hope."
Lawyer Marc Bellemare, one of the signatories of the letter, told a news conference Thursday the Pope's visit is an "exceptional opportunity for the victims to get commitments on his part."
“There are a lot of victims of pedophile priests who have expectations, and what’s happening on the ground is unacceptable because all that the Pope has been saying for months and years doesn’t trickle down to the courtrooms or the dioceses," Bellemare said.
"Those cases are often caught up in years of legal wrangling," Bellemare said, adding that many victims don't live to see justice.
Gaétan Bégin, 82, a member of a class-action lawsuit against the Quebec Citydiocese, was allegedly abused by a priest over three years in the Beauce, Que., region. The lawsuit is the first class action authorized in Quebec that targets a diocese for acts committed by members of the clergy. The suit covers the Quebec City area and the Chaudière-Appalaches, Charlevoix and Beauce regions.
Bégin, who signed the letter to the Pope, told a news conference the assaults led to a lifetime of hurt. The abuse he suffered ruined not only his youth but also much of his adult life, he said.
"I was confused, without strength, completely demolished," Bégin said. "I carried an open wound inside me that would never close completely."
Bégin, who lives in Sherbrooke, Que., said he would discover later in life that his three brothers were also abused. He called on the Pope to apologize and use the Vatican's riches to compensate those who suffered at the hands of representatives of the Catholic Church.
"I would tell him the suffering has lasted long enough,” Bégin said. “When a victim suffers, their entire family suffers — everyone.”
Also a signatory to the letter is Shirley Christensen, who spent years in the criminal and civil courts before settling her own abuse case more than a decade ago. Christensen is asking the Pope to put an end to victims' suffering and get them immediate help.
"I ask him, more specifically, not to apologize to God, this time, because these horrors were not done to God, but to innocent Quebec victims who were, for the most part, children," she said.
Lawyer Alain Arsenault, whose law firm is leading several lawsuits against the Catholic clergy, says no protests are planned during the Pope's visit. He said his law firm released the letter this week because he didn't want it to overshadow the Pope's visit to a residential school and the theme of healing and reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples.
Pope Francis is expected to deliver an apology for the Roman Catholic Church's role in residential schools during the trip, following up on sentiments expressed earlier this year when a delegation of Indigenous people visited the Vatican.
Among the events the Pope has planned in Canada are meetings with Indigenous groups, a visit to the former Ermineskin Residential School, in Maskwacis, Alta., and a mass at the shrine of Ste-Anne-de-Beaupré, northeast of Quebec City.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 14, 2022.
Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press