Supreme Court defers decision on Church liability in Canada

The Supreme Court of Canada ruled yesterday that three dozen former altar boys, who sexually abused by a Newfoundland priest, could sue the local Catholic diocese as well as the convicted priest. But the court stopped short in declaring whether the entire Catholic Church can be held liable for damages, reported the Canadian Press, reserving the decision for another day.

Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, writing for a unanimous nine-member bench, said the parties simply hadn't presented enough facts to resolve that issue, reported CP.

"The record before us is too weak to permit the court . . . to responsibly embark on the important and difficult question of whether the Roman Catholic Church can be held liable," wrote McLachlin.

At issue in this case was who could be sued for the sexual assaults committed by Newfoundland priest, Fr. Kevin Bennett, who admitted his guilt and was sentenced to four years in prison in the early 1990s.

His 36 victims launched a civil suit in 1991, claiming damages from him, some of his Church superiors, the Diocese of St. George's and the Catholic Church as a whole. But more than 10 years later, the issue hasn’t been entirely resolved.

In the initial case, the trial judge ruled that legal liability extended to Fr. Bennett, St. George’s Bishop Raymond Lahey, former St. John's archbishop Alphonsus Penney and the Diocese of St. George's, but not to the entire Church.

The Newfoundland Court of Appeal upheld the liability of Fr. Bennett and the diocese, but cleared Bishop Lahey, Bishop-emeritus Penney and the overall Church.

In its ruling Thursday, the Supreme Court upheld the decision of the Court of Appeal in large part, except for the question on the liability of the Church, on which it reserved its decision.

Unlike many other denominations, which are incorporated nationally, the Catholic Church in Canada is legally incorporated only at the diocesan level, reported CP, which makes it legally impossible to sue or to be held liable as a whole.

The Church’s legal immunity in Canada has also frustrated the Canadian government in its efforts to reach legal settlements with victims of sexual abuse, who attended church-run but government-owned aboriginal schools. If the Canadian Church were to have its immunity revoked, then it would be legally required to help the government foot the bill for the abuse claims.

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