A lawsuit filed late last year in Canada’s British Columbia Supreme Court against Vancouver’s Roman Catholic Archdiocese is once again drawing attention to the sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church. The civil lawsuit, while filed under Canadian law rather than U.S. or New York law, raises questions about whether the Church is responsible for its priests’ sexual actions, and how long a sexual abuse victim can wait before coming forward with his claims.
A lawsuit filed in Canada against the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vancouver is the latest in a string of international criminal charges and legal cases against priests, bishops, and the Catholic Church as a whole. The Vancouver complaint, filed anonymously by “John Doe” on October 23, 2020, alleges that Father John Kilty, Parish pastor of the North Vancouver Holy Trinity Parish, sexually assaulted the plaintiff when he was six years old. According to the suit, Kilty groped and touched the plaintiff sexually, drugged him, removed his clothing, and took sexual actions against him. Kilty is also said to have psychologically groomed and manipulated the plaintiff.
The complaint also named Raymond Clavin, a former Christian Brothers coach and employee of the Catholic Independent Schools of Vancouver (CISVA) as a defendant. It says he threatened the plaintiff with harm, removed his clothing, and performed sexual actions against him.
The events that were described in the complaint happened in 1974 and 1975. Father Kilty’s estate is being sued because he had passed away before it was filed. Usually, civil lawsuits for physical and sexual assault need to be filed within a few years of the incident. This is called a Statute of Limitations. However, many jurisdictions, including New York State, make exceptions for child sexual abuse.
New York’s Child Victims Act extends the statute of limitations in both criminal cases and civil lawsuits involving sexual abuse, incest, or child pornography. Had the Vancouver lawsuit been filed in this state, “John Doe” would have until age 55 to raise his complaint. While this law does not apply to Canadian lawsuits, it appears that the British Colombia Limitations Act does not apply to claims of sexual assault.
In addition to the Father and the Catholic school coach, John Doe named the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vancouver (RCAV) itself as a defendant in the lawsuit. The complaint said:
“At all times material to the abuse, the RCAV and/or the CISVA were complicit in a culture of entrenched clericalism that enabled perpetrators of sexual abuse to continue to commit their grievous crimes, and wherein witnesses, complainants and whistleblowers were silenced.”
It seeks to hold the Catholic Church itself for the behavior of its priests and employees.
The Church certainly has known about sexual abuse allegations among its ranks before. In 2019, the Archdiocese there had identified 36 priests in British Columbia, turned them over to non-religious officials for investigation. This included included complaints of sexual abuse in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as other priests who were serving in the ministry at the time. It isn’t clear if Father Kilty was among them. Closer to home, in 2018, a Pennsylvania Grand Jury reported 300 “predator priests” who had sexually abused over 1,000 child victims dating back to 1947.
But can the Church be held accountable for its priests’ actions directly? Again, Canadian law may not be the same as the law here in the U.S. and New York. In the U.S., generally speaking, civil lawsuits can be filed against employers based on the employer’s negligent hiring, training, or supervision of the abuser, as well as failures to investigate or act on complaints or warning signs. The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that employment discrimination laws don’t prevent Catholic schools from firing employees for discriminatory reasons. However, there isn’t clear law about whether the “ministerial exception” extends to a religious employer who fails to investigate claims of sexual harassment and abuse by those ministers.
At Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, our clergy sexual abuse attorneys know how to work with the law, and employers, religious and otherwise to get the victims of sexual abuse the relief they need. We can negotiate with religious institutions and, when necessary, fight back against ministerial exception defenses to make sure your rights are protected, and your needs met. Contact Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, today to talk to an attorney.