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Canadian cardinal Marc Ouellet leads a mass at the Santa Maria in Traspontina church in Rome on March 10, 2013.FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images

A prominent Vatican cardinal from Quebec, long considered a top candidate for the papacy, is one of dozens of clergy members facing allegations of sexual assault as part of a class-action lawsuit against his former diocese.

The cardinal, Marc Ouellet, a former archbishop of Quebec City and a member of Pope Francis’s inner circle, is accused of inappropriately massaging and touching a woman’s lower back over the course of several public events between August, 2008, and February, 2010. She was an intern at the time, serving as a pastoral agent in the diocese.

The woman, identified in court documents only as F., claims Cardinal Ouellet’s repeated touching and unwanted attention left her feeling “chased” by one of Canada’s most powerful clerics. She also claims to have been assaulted separately by another priest, Léopold Manirabarusha, whose unwanted advances between 2016 and 2018, she alleges, included forcing her to perform oral sex on him.

Her allegations are contained in a statement of claim made public Tuesday as part of the class-action lawsuit. The plaintiffs allege that at least 85 members of the Quebec City diocese committed sexual assaults from the 1940s onward against more than 100 victims, most of whom say they were minors when the attacks took place. The allegations have not been tested in court.

The diocese declined to comment on Tuesday. Its lawyers, Catherine Cloutier and Émilie Bilodeau of the law firm Stein Monast, also declined to comment.

The incidents involving Cardinal Ouellet are alleged to have taken place five years after he was elevated to the College of Cardinals, and months before he left the Quebec City diocese and moved to Rome to become Prefect of the Congregation of Bishops, the Vatican office responsible for the appointments of bishops.

The assaults allegedly began the year after Cardinal Ouellet released an open letter apologizing for the church’s past “errors” in Quebec, including antisemitism, homophobia and sexual abuse of children. “These scandals shook the confidence of the people toward religious authorities, and we understand that. Forgive us for all this harm!” the letter said.

In an interview, Justin Wee, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said the fact that the allegations involve a member of the clergy as prominent as Cardinal Ouellet underlines the diocese’s systemic failure at preventing sexual abuses.

“When someone of that stature, Cardinal Ouellet, can carry out these acts, you can imagine what kind of acts other priests in the diocese could be doing,” Mr. Wee said of the accusations.

He added that news coverage about such abuses often inspires other victims to come forward.

In the lawsuit, F. alleges that Cardinal Ouellet, who was then an archbishop, first touched her inappropriately when she was 23 years old, at an event for the Sisters of Charity in Quebec City. Shortly after being introduced to the cardinal, she claims, she felt the hands of a man forcefully massaging her shoulders – and when she turned, she saw that it was him. He smiled at her and rubbed her back before parting, she says. The encounter left her feeling uneasy, and she spoke to colleagues about it afterward.

F. claims she was reintroduced to Cardinal Ouellet at a cocktail reception soon after, in November, 2008. She alleges the cardinal hugged her, held her firmly against him, and rubbed her back with his hands before whispering in her ear and asking her name.

Finally, F. claims that in February, 2010, at the ordination of a colleague, Cardinal Ouellet intercepted her and said that he should hug her again, because “there was no harm in spoiling oneself a bit.” He hugged her and slid his hand down the length of her back to above her buttocks, she alleges. She didn’t know how to react.

In the statement of claim, F. says her unease was heightened by the fact that her position and career depended on Cardinal Ouellet. She says she started to avoid him as much as possible at events. Those in whom F. confided told her that she was not the first woman to have these sorts of “problems” with him.

In 2020, after attending a training session about sexual assault, F. came to understand that her own experience with Cardinal Ouellet – alleged non-consensual sexual touching – constituted sexual assault, the claim says.

The court papers say F. wrote to Pope Francis about Cardinal Ouellet at the end of January, 2021. She was informed by e-mail a month later that the pontiff had appointed a Jesuit priest, Jacques Servais, to investigate.

The claim says Father Servais appears to have little grasp of the intricacies of dealing with allegations of sexual abuse, that he might be an associate of Cardinal Ouellet and that he was last in touch with F. on March 23, 2021.

When Cardinal Ouellet’s elevation to cardinal was announced by Pope John Paul II in September, 2003, he was known as an erudite Sulpician theologian with traditional views. A decade later, after Pope Benedict XVI stepped down, Cardinal Ouellet acknowledged that he was among those considered front-runners to be the next pontiff.

The class-action suit against the diocese of Quebec City was first filed by two plaintiffs two years ago and initially only outlined allegations against two priests, dating back to the 1950s and 1960s. A judge certified the action in May. The new claim filed Monday added detailed allegations from six plaintiffs, including F.

The other allegations involve a vicar and parish priests.

Mr. Wee said it is now up to the defendants to either begin negotiating a settlement or go to trial.

His firm, Arsenault Dufresne Wee Avocats, is also pursuing class-action lawsuits against several other Quebec dioceses and congregations over allegations of sexual assault.

An independent audit of nine Quebec dioceses covering more than 80 years found at least 87 alleged sexual abusers among church personnel, according to a summary of the findings released in June.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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