Warning: This story contains distressing details of sexual assault. A list of resources for people who have experienced sexual violence appears at the end of the article.
Victims of sexual abuse by the Roman Catholic clergy in Quebec are calling on Pope Francis to apologize for the harm and trauma they endured, when he visits Quebec City later this month.
The Pope will be in the province from July 27 to 29 as part of a week-long trip to Canada to advance reconciliation and healing between the Catholic Church and Indigenous communities who suffered from years of abuse at residential schools.
While it is very important not to overshadow the primary reason for the Pope's visit, it is also important that the pontiff be made aware of other crimes committed by Quebec clergy, said Marc Bellemare, one of the lawyers representing the victims, during a news conference Thursday.
"Let's be clear, we are 150 per cent in solidarity with the victims of residential schools," said Bellemare.
But "we don't want the condition of the victims of pedophile priests to go under the radar and that Pope Francis returns to the Vatican without having been informed of the current situation," he said.
Cases dragging on for decades
In an open letter to the Pope made public on Thursday, victims and their lawyers say more than 2,500 people who were abused by the clergy are still waiting for justice as their cases drag on in court.
According to the letter, there are currently 21 class-action lawsuits against dioceses and congregations in Quebec.
The victims and their lawyers are accusing the Quebec clergy, especially the Quebec archdiocese led by Archbishop Gérald Cyprien Lacroix, of systematically creating obstacles — such as refusing to disclose documents or to meet with survivors.
"These defence strategies can cause delays of more than 10 years for certain cases," said another lawyer for the victims, Alain Arsenault.
"Some congregations and some dioceses take into consideration the age of the victims to increase the delays," he said, noting that many victims died without ever having closure because their cases were still ongoing.
More than just prayers
Gaétan Bégin, 81, recently won the right to launch a class action against the Quebec archdiocese and is one the signatories of the open letter to the Pope.
He says he was raped for three years by a priest in the Beauce region when he was a young teenager, at a time when he was especially vulnerable because his mother was seriously ill.
"They didn't just rob me of my childhood, they destroyed a big part of my life," he said. He says he started drinking to forget his shame and trauma, and that he wasn't able to settle down in one place or hold a stable job.
"What touched me the most is the suffering that I imposed without wanting to on my wife, my children and my grandchildren," he said.
Bégin is asking for more than just prayers from the Pope. He wants to hear a direct apology and he also wants the head of the Church to use "the extreme wealth of the Vatican" to provide financial compensation to the victims.
Shirley Christensen, who won both a criminal and civil lawsuit against the Quebec diocese after a lengthy legal battle, said she will too be listening closely for an apology when the Pope holds a public mass at Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, Que.
"Put an end to their suffering and order that the victims be supported immediately, it's as simple as that," she said.
In a statement sent by email on Thursday, Quebec Archbishop Cyprien Lacroix said he will personally give the open letter to the Pope.
"We know he is sensitive to the pain of abuse victims and convinced that truth and justice must prevail," the email read.
But the victims and their lawyers said they don't fully trust Cyprien Lacroix and the local clergy to tell the Pope the whole truth about the sexual abuse lawsuits.
Bellemare said that's why they decided to address the media, two weeks ahead of the visit. "It's certain that our communication channel is not Cyprien Lacroix," he said.
The lawyer said there won't be any protests or news conferences about this topic during the actual visit, in order not to draw attention away from Indigenous victims.
There are resources and supports available to anyone who has experienced sexual violence: