Montreal Catholic Church ombudswoman details delays, resistance to complaint process

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MONTREAL — An independent ombudswoman hired by the Catholic Church of Montreal said Tuesday she's encountering delays and resistance to her efforts to address complaints, warning that the process to tackle abuse and misconduct risks becoming a "smokescreen."

The third quarterly report published Tuesday by Marie Christine Kirouack said that in recent months she's faced a number of problems, including non-compliance with deadlines, delays and a failure by church officials to follow up with people who are subject to complaints.

Kirouack, who was hired in May 2021, noted that addressing abuse and other complaints requires a "major culture change" that will only happen if it comes "clearly and unequivocally directly from above."

"It is only in this way that people reluctant to change will follow in the footsteps of this reform," she wrote. "Thus and only thus, will they be able to grasp that their future and the future of their church are also at stake.

"Otherwise, this process will only be a smokescreen for which the victims will pay the price."

She said that in some cases, people who are targeted by complaints have openly flouted orders — seemingly without consequences.

In one example cited in her report, a person who was ordered to "re-establish the Church's position on vaccines" and publicly apologize has openly refused to do so. In another, a person who was ordered not to discuss a complaint publicly or talk to the alleged victim or their congregation did not respect the decree, "and this, without consequences."

"I asked for sanctions to be taken against him and to my dismay, my question seemed to surprise," Kirouack said.

She said the city's archdiocese needs to make a greater effort to ensure people who are the subject of complaints comply with disciplinary orders.

"Otherwise, I fear, the current process will do more harm than good to our complainants," she wrote.

Her report also noted that "resistance to some of the changes that have been made" resulted in officials omitting, neglecting or refusing to transfer documents, which she said delayed the start of one investigation by more than six weeks.

Archbishop Christian Lépine said Tuesday in a statement the archdiocese is committed to "ongoing improvement of our internal routines and practices to become better at ensuring prevention and the follow-up of complaints," adding that it has also implemented awareness training for church personnel.

The statement noted that Lépine had established the ombudswoman's role to assure victims of abuse "that their voice will not only be heard but also acted upon."

The ombudswoman has received 95 formal complaints since her investigation began in May 2021 into events dating back to 1950 until the present day — including 53 related to various form of abuse. No new sexual abuse reports have been filed since the last update was published in December, but Kirouack said Tuesday the number of complaints related to psychological, physical or spiritual abuse has doubled to 30 from 15 over that period.

In total, 30 abuse complaints are sexual in nature, with half of them relating to incidents occurring in the 1950s and '60s in schools under the jurisdiction of religious congregations.

The ombudswoman's appointment was one of the key recommendations in a November 2020 report by former Superior Court justice Pepita G. Capriolo, who investigated the church's handling of the case of an ex-priest sentenced to eight years in prison in 2019 for sexually assaulting two minors.

Capriolo concluded the church had a culture of secrecy, lacked accountability and was more interested in protecting the reputation of ex-priest Brian Boucher than of addressing the sexual abuse.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 19, 2022.

Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press

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