The Supreme Court of Canada recently confirmed the authorization of a class action instituted against two religious organizations for sexual abuse suffered at the hands of priests and teachers.
A representative plaintiff (the “plaintiff”) brought a motion for authorization to institute a class action on behalf of himself and all victims of sexual assaults that were alleged to have been committed in various institutions in Quebec since 1940 by brothers and fathers who were members of the religious community known as the Congregation of Holy Cross. The plaintiff had designated as defendants the Province canadienne de la Congrégation de Sainte‑Croix (“Congregation”) — which is the legal person whose objects were to organize, administer and maintain that religious community — and the Oratoire Saint‑Joseph du Mont‑Royal (“Oratory”) — which is an institution in which the plaintiff alleged he was sexually assaulted as a child.
The plaintiff alleged that he had been sexually abused by two members, since deceased, when he was attending Notre‑Dame‑des‑Neiges elementary school and when he was an altar boy at St. Joseph’s Oratory of Mount Royal. He didn’t tell anyone about the abuse for decades. He said he had nightmares and flashbacks for years. He believed there were other victims like him, so he decided to launch a class action in Quebec in 2013. The plaintiff said the Congregation and the Oratory were directly responsible for what happened to him by their own acts. He said they knew (or should have known) about the abuse but didn’t stop it, and even covered it up. He said they were also responsible for the acts of the teacher and the priest, because they assigned them to work with children.
The defendants vehemently objected to the granting of authorization to institute a class action against them.
The Congregation argued that it was constituted as a corporation only in 2008 and that it could not be held liable for acts that were for the most part alleged to have been committed before it was incorporated. The Oratory, for its part, submitted that it had no connection with the religious community known as the Congregation of Holy Cross. It claimed to be a distinct entity whose sole mission is to operate and maintain that place of worship.
In addition, both the defendants claimed that, in any event, the plaintiff’s personal action was irreparably forfeited as a result of article 2926.1 (paragraph 2) of the Civil Code of Quebec, which reads:
“2926.1. An action for damages for bodily injury resulting from an act which could constitute a criminal offence is prescribed by 10 years from the date the victim becomes aware that the injury suffered is attributable to that act. However, the prescriptive period is 30 years if the injury results from a sexual aggression, violent behaviour suffered during childhood, or the violent behaviour of a spouse or former spouse.
If the victim or the author of the act dies, the prescriptive period, if not already expired, is reduced to three years and runs from the date of death.”
Lower Court Decisions
The Quebec Superior Court found that none of the conditions for authorization set out in article 575 of the Code of Civil Procedure (the “C.C.P.”) were met and refused to authorize the institution of the class action.
The majority of the Quebec Court of Appeal reversed that judgment and authorized the institution of the class action against the Congregation and the Oratory. The dissenting Court of Appeal judge agreed with the authorization of the class action against the Congregation, but not against the Oratory.
Supreme Court of Canada Decision
The court first reviewed whether the Quebec Court of Appeal’s intervention in the Superior Court judge’s decision was justified. The court found that there was no doubt that the Superior Court judge had made numerous errors, of fact and of law, with respect to all the conditions of article 575 of the C.C.P. The court concluded that, given the numerous errors made by the Superior Court judge with respect to the C.C.P. conditions, the Court of Appeal was clearly right to substitute its own assessment for that of the application judge.
The court then turned to the question as to whether the Court of Appeal’s decision to authorize the institution of the class action against both the Congregation and the Oratory was itself tainted by an error that justified a review by the court. The court found that this was not the case.
Additionally, the court found that it was not too late for the plaintiff to sue. Despite the three year prescriptive period in the Civil Code of Quebec, the court found that this rule did not apply to lawsuits against third parties. Rather, the rule applies to lawsuits brought against the abuser’s succession, or brought by the victim’s succession, after they have died. Therefore, the plaintiff could sue the Congregation and the Oratory for their failure to prevent or stop the abuse. Additionally, the court found that the time limit started when a victim realized that the abuse was responsible for their injury, which could be long after the abuser died.
As a result, the court dismissed the appeal from the Court of Appeal decision and the class action can move forward against both the Congregation and Oratory.
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