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Ontario jury sets record punitive award against Catholic Church over priest’s abuse

A jury has awarded $500,000 in punitive damages against a Roman Catholic religious order over a priest’s abuse of a schoolboy, accusing it of betraying the community’s trust by covering up abuse and moving a serial predator along to new posts.

Rob Talach, a lawyer who represented the victim, Rod MacLeod, now 68, said the case represents the largest punitive award by a civil jury in a sexual-abuse case against the Catholic Church in Canada. Over all, the jury award in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice amounted to $2.5-million, which includes money for lost wages, suffering and lost enjoyment of life.

Punitive damages are reserved for particularly egregious conduct, and are meant to deter such conduct in the future.

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“I think that the public, as expressed through the jury, is fed up. They want to see more action by institutions,” Mr. Talach said in an interview. “We are moving in a more positive direction. MeToo is part of that. The Cosby conviction is part of that.” (U.S. entertainer Bill Cosby was convicted of sexual offences this week in Pennsylvania.)

Evidence showed that William Hodgson Marshall, a member of the Basilian Fathers (a Catholic order of priests), sexually abused Mr. MacLeod 50 times between 1963 and 1967 while Mr. Macleod was a student at St. Charles College high school in Sudbury, Ont., and Mr. Marshall was a priest and gym teacher.

Mr. Marshall admitted to the church that he had between 58 and 87 victims over three decades, according to evidence presented during the civil trial. The order had received several complaints of abuse about him. He was sentenced to two years in jail in 2011 for indecent assault of 16 children and one woman. He died at age 92 in 2014. There have been at least 17 lawsuits, most of which have been settled out of court.

In Mr. Talach’s closing address to the jury, he likened Mr. Marshall to “a barrel of toxic waste: Every time he abused, it was like that barrel was leaking.” And the Basilians’ response was “simply to move the barrel to another community,” including Rochester, N.Y., Toronto, Windsor, Ont., and Sudbury.

The jury used strong terms in denouncing the church’s conduct, in a document written for the court stating the particulars of the conduct for which it ordered the $500,000 in punitive damages. “Concealment: Silent shuffle undertaken to divert … avoiding scandal, neglected to document offences. Put children in harm’s way – grossly negligent. No reconciliation with victims. … Betrayal of trust with the community.”

The Basilian Fathers, in a statement, said they respect the judgment and are determined to work toward the eradication of sexual abuse. They also said they had previously expressed their “deep shame” over Mr. Marshall’s actions, and that he was dismissed from the priesthood and religious life by Pope Benedict XVI in 2013.

The statement also said the Fathers’ manner of dealing with complaints “was inadequate by today’s standards and knowledge.” The Basilian Fathers have not decided yet whether to appeal the award, Rev. Thomas Rosica, a spokesman, said in an interview.

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Deacon René Laprise, a spokesman for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the church has no data to show whether the punitive damages award in the Marshall case was the largest in Canada, as each diocese is responsible for managing cases in its community.

Mr. MacLeod said in an interview that he hopes the new level of punitive damages will be his legacy.

“Finally, we’re pulling the veil off and showing the public exactly what’s been going on.”

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