New ombudsperson for Montreal archdiocese fields dozens of complaints, many connected to religious schools

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Four months after being appointed, the ombudsperson for the Archdiocese of Montreal has released her first report.  (Charles Contant/CBC - image credit)
Four months after being appointed, the ombudsperson for the Archdiocese of Montreal has released her first report. (Charles Contant/CBC - image credit)

The Montreal archdiocese has published a first ombudsperson's report into complaints regarding abuse and other inappropriate behaviour connected to the church, and many of them relate to religious schools.

The ombudsperson, Montreal lawyer Marie Christine Kirouack, examined 45 formal complaints in the report released Thursday.

A total of 26 involve abuse — 22 of which were related to sexual abuse. Fifteen of them are alleged to have occurred between the 1950s and 1970s in religious boarding schools overseen by the archdiocese.

In these instances, Kirouack said the alleged abuse was often relentless.

"We're talking ongoing," Kirouack told CBC News. "I'm not talking a week, we're talking months and years."

Sent away to study, victims had little chance of avoiding their alleged attacker or defending themselves against further abuse. In some cases, when the child did tell their parents they were not believed or punished, Kirouack said.

"Nobody dared attack the church. You know, the church was supposed to be perfect, it was representative of God," she said, pointing out how much power the Catholic church held in Quebec during this time period.

Many of the victims recounted long-lasting problems with depression, anxiety, PTSD and in certain cases substance abuse. Some women told Kirouack they were involved in abusive relationships because of their lack of self-worth and low self-esteem.

The complainants in the sexual abuse cases from 2010 to the present were all adults when the abuse occurred.

The other complaints Kirouack fielded mainly comprised employee conflicts.

Advisory committee also in place

Kirouack, who is not affiliated with the church, was appointed last May and is mandated to receive all allegations of abuse and other inappropriate behaviour and to ensure those complaints are followed up.

Complaints compiled by Kirouack are referred to an advisory committee, composed of four experts in various fields and one survivor of abuse.

The report says the advisory committee referred seven of the complaints for investigation to an external consulting firm, Quintet.

The same firm was hired to do an external review of the toxic workplace culture at Rideau Hall during Julie Payette's tenure as Governor General, which resulted in her resignation.

Kirouack's report did not make any formal recommendations beyond the statistical examination of the complaints and summary of their contents. But she is tasked with following up and intends to set guidelines for how long investigations should take in the coming weeks.

The creation of the ombudsperson position was one of the key recommendations in a report tabled last November on improving accountability in the diocese.

Last spring, Kirouack ran radio ads in both French and English to let people know what her role was and how to reach her. At certain times during the year, she says they may do that again as a reminder.

"I saw the pain of the people who contacted me. Often times, I was the first person they confided in or who believed them," Kirouack said in a news release.

"They told me that they appreciated this listening as well as the process that was put in place to support them."

Some of the complainants did not want to file a formal complaint, but wanted to be included in the report's statistics.

"One specifically said it is important for history," she said.

Complaints involving residential schools, as well

Kirouack also acknowledged in the report the widespread abuse that occurred in residential schools, some of which were on the archdiocese's territory.

"I received emails and calls (nine in total) denouncing the atrocities Indigenous people have been victims of. I told all of them that I understood their feelings and shared those feelings. I want to add my voice to theirs to show every Indigenous person that I support them in their quest for truth," she wrote in the report.

Last November, former Superior Court justice Pepita G. Capriolo issued a report harshly criticizing how the archdiocese handled the case of ex-priest Brian Boucher, who was sentenced to eight years in prison in 2019 for sexually assaulting two minors.

Archbishop Christian Lepine said Thursday more than half of the report's 31 recommendations have been implemented, adding that the rest are expected to be put into force by the end of 2021.

"I think about all the people who have sent out signals but for whom there was a lack of follow-up and investigation with compassion," Lepine said in a statement.

"I express to you my deepest regret in the face of these shortcomings that we are determined to rectify."

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