The Vatican says there is insufficient evidence to open a church investigation into Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the former archbishop of Quebec, despite a recent class action accusing him and some 88 other clergy members of sexual abuse and misconduct.
A spokesperson for Pope Francis, Matteo Bruni, made the announcement in a statement Thursday morning.
Ouellet, who works at the Vatican and is seen as a potential successor to the Pope, is accused by a woman identified as "F" in the lawsuit of unwanted touching and kissing, as well as sexual harassment.
In its statement, the Vatican says theologian Jacques Servais, who was tasked with conducting a preliminary investigation into the allegations, found no evidence that warranted further disciplinary measures.
"There are no grounds to open an investigation into [allegations] of sexual assault on the person F. by [Ouellet]," Servais said in the statement. "Not in her written report to the Holy Father, nor in [her] testimony on Zoom."
But an investigation by Radio-Canada's program Enquête found Servais might have had a conflict of interest.
According to the Vatican's protocols on sexual assault, any allegations against a priest must be reported to the bishop of the diocese where the priest is currently working, explained theologian Jean-Guy Nadeau.
"Since Cardinal Ouellet is in Rome, the bishop for [him], it's the Pope," he said.
The 78-year-old cardinal is the head of the Vatican's department responsible for selecting new bishops, one of the most senior positions in the Catholic Church.
WATCH | Vatican says not enough evidence to investigate Quebec cardinal:
The alleged victim, who first met Ouellet in 2008 when he was still the archbishop of Quebec, filed a complaint to the Vatican in 2021.
After learning the Pope had mandated Servais to look into her allegations, F wanted to know more about Servais.
"My first reaction was to do a search to see who he was," the woman told Enquête.
"When I saw right away his relationship with Marc Ouellet, it worried me in terms of his independence and his neutrality," she said.
Servais and Ouellet are both members of Casa Balthasar, an international organization that offers spiritual training. They have also collaborated together on various publications and organizing events in Rome, the team at Enquête found.
Investigator did not respect internal procedure
The fact that Servais was the one who investigated Ouellet, even though they work together, goes against a decree made by the Pope himself that says an investigator must be impartial and not have any conflicts of interests.
If that's the case, the decree says the person must abstain from partaking in the investigation.
It's a situation that Nadeau describes as "troubling."
"We're a bit flabbergasted. There are other people in Rome who could've led the [preliminary] investigation," he said.
F also told Enquête that Servais admitted to her that he wasn't an investigator, that he had never worked on this type of case and that "he didn't know what to do with the allegations."
One of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs, Justin Wee, said Servais asked F what were her motivations to come forward with her allegations during a virtual meeting the two had in 2021.
Wee said the fact that Servais was "a close friend" of Ouellet was "problematic" and raises questions about the integrity of the investigation.
"If the Vatican was taking that seriously, that investigation, they should have appointed someone else than someone who knows and worked with Cardinal Ouellet," he said.
Wee also questioned the timing of the statement, which comes more than a year and a half after F filed her complaint with the Vatican.
According to the Pope's decree, Servais had 90 days to issue a decision on his findings.
"We're wondering why it took so long to have that conclusion," Wee said. "Is it because they didn't want to make any noise about [the Pope's visit to Canada] that they waited?"
The lawyer said his client, F, was "very disappointed" by the Vatican's decision, but said "she's still determined to prove all the facts that she alleged."
"If it won't be in a canon law trial, it will be in a civil trial," he said.
Servais did not respond to Enquête's requests for an interview.
More victims joining lawsuit
F is one of more than 100 alleged victims represented by the class-action lawsuit. The plaintiffs say they were sexually assaulted, most of them as minors, by priests and other staff working for the archdiocese since 1940.
Most of the assaults allegedly took place in the '50s and '60s, court documents say.
About 10 more victims have come forward since the class-action was filed Tuesday, Wee said.
The ball is now in the archdiocese's court to decide whether it will settle with the victims, or fight the lawsuit in court.
The archdiocese of Quebec declined to comment on the case as it is before the courts, but its spokesperson René Tessier said the Vatican is not opposed to reopening an investigation if new evidence is presented.
The allegations against Ouellet have not been proven in court, and he is not facing any criminal charges.