Retired priest, 92, charged after decade-long investigation into residential school sexual assault

·5 min read
Arthur Masse is shown here in this undated photo. Masse, now 92, is charged with indecent assault against a 10-year-old girl who was a student at the Fort Alexander residential school between 1968 and 1970. (Société historique de Saint-Boniface Archives - image credit)
Arthur Masse is shown here in this undated photo. Masse, now 92, is charged with indecent assault against a 10-year-old girl who was a student at the Fort Alexander residential school between 1968 and 1970. (Société historique de Saint-Boniface Archives - image credit)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

A retired priest has been charged with indecent assault in connection with a decade-long RCMP investigation into a Manitoba residential school.

Retired Father Arthur Masse, 92, was charged in connection with the sexual assault on a 10-year-old girl, who was a student at the Fort Alexander residential school, northeast of Winnipeg.

The alleged assault occurred between 1968 and 1970, police said at a news conference Friday morning.

"The victim in this case has endured a lot throughout the investigative process and has stood firm in speaking out about what happened to her," RCMP spokesperson Sgt. Paul Manaigre said at a news conference on Friday.

"The most important thing to her, today, is she was heard."

Police arrested Masse at his home in Winnipeg on Thursday. He was released with conditions and will appear in court in Powerview on July 20.

This is the only current investigation into residential schools by Manitoba RCMP and with this arrest, the investigation is concluded, police said.

More than 80 investigators worked on the case, contacting more than 700 people across North America to search for witnesses and victims, and obtaining 75 witness and victim statements.

"The question may be asked: Why, with all this work, was there one charge laid and not many?" Manaigre said.

"Unfortunately, due to the passage of time, many of the victims are not able to participate in the investigation, whether that be for mental or physical health reasons, or because the victim is now deceased."

National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation archives
National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation archives

Potential victims were given time to consider whether they wanted to give statements to police and potentially go through the court process, RCMP said.

In addition to interviewing potential victims and witnesses, investigators went through thousands of documents and archival materials and did door-to-door canvassing. After consulting with prosecution services, police decided there will be no further charges laid in connection with this investigation.

"This arrest is the culmination of a decade of work by the RCMP investigators, who would not have been able to bring this to a conclusion without the incredible bravery of the victims and witnesses who were willing to relive past trauma and speak about what took place," Manaigre said.

If any other potential victims decide to come forward, police will follow up, Manaigre said.

Regarding the charge of indecent assault, Manaigre said at the time the offence is alleged to have happened, the charge of sexual assault did not exist in the Canadian Criminal Code.

The school opened in 1905 in the community of Fort Alexander, on the territory of Sagkeeng First Nation, and closed in 1970.

The Fort Alexander school had a reputation for abuse. Survivors told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission about starvation and harsh discipline.

WATCH | 'Today is for the victim': RCMP 

Children from nearly two dozen First Nations attended the school for about 10 months of the year.

A criminal investigation began looking into the residential school in 2011.

'People wouldn't say something for nothing,' chief says 

Sagkeeng First Nation Chief Derrick Henderson told CBC a criminal charge being laid after so many years was a kind of vindication for the community.

"There have been many stories people have been talking about this. There have never been any formal charges," he said. "Our people need to be believed when they tell something and it's very disheartening as a chief when our membership says something and then they're not believed because of stigma," said Henderson.

"People wouldn't say anything for nothing."

Healing for some in the community will come through traditional ceremony, said Henderson.

"Our people are going to have to take it all in and then start trying to move forward ... So, we're resilient. We've been here for hundreds and hundreds of years. Whatever we have to face with we'll deal with within the community. We'll get the supports that we require," he said.

MLA Nahanni Fontaine (NDP, St. John's), who is from Sagkeeng First Nation, says the day of the announcement of charges against Masse is a day to focus on the residential school survivor, while sending a message to other potential perpetrators of violence against children.

"Today's an important day for putting people on notice," she said in an interview with CBC News.

"For so many years residential school survivors have been asking for the pursuit of justice and charges to be levelled against those that did just atrocious things. Today proves it can be done."

Winnipeg archdiocese decries 'heinous crime of sexual abuse'

In a prepared statement translated from French, the Archdiocese of St. Boniface, which has a parish in the community, said it was "deeply saddened by the events and circumstances" leading to the arrest of Masse. The archdiocese said it could not comment directly as the Fort Alexander residential school was managed by Oblate priests.

"Nevertheless, we wish to express our deep concern and sorrow to the alleged victim, as well as her family and all those affected. Whenever the heinous crime of sexual abuse is exposed, all victims of such abuse, as well as their families and communities, are hurt again," the statement said.

"We wish to express our shame and sadness. We want to listen, ask for forgiveness and learn how people of Sagkeeng could allow us to participate in their healing and reconciliation," the statement said.

Archbishop Albert LeGatt said he would reach out to people in Sagkeeng to ask for their help.

"We ask all the faithful of the archdiocese to pray for the victim, her loved ones and for the community of Sagkeeng, as well as for Father Masse," said LeGatt.

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools and those who are triggered by these reports. 

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for residential school survivors and others affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

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