The Redemptorist religious order is probably best known in Canada for its association with the Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré shrine near Quebec City, a major tourist attraction and holy pilgrimage site for devout Catholics. Now the congregation is in the spotlight for a dark chapter in its past.
The Catholic community has agreed to pay $20-million to people who were once schoolboys in its care in what is described as a record sexual-abuse settlement in Quebec.
In a deal announced on Tuesday, the order approved settling a class-action lawsuit brought on behalf of abuse victims at the school during a 27-year span beginning in 1960. The students, all boys, were aged 12 to 16 at the time.
"This is a landmark case," said Robert Kugler, a Montreal lawyer who represents the victims. "This is the highest amount that has ever been paid by a religious congregation in Quebec to settle a class action dealing with sexual abuse."
The suit was launched by former student Frank Tremblay against the school, the Redemptorist order, and priest Raymond-Marie Lavoie. Mr. Tremblay recounted that as a 13-year-old student, he sought out Mr. Lavoie after feeling anxious and unable to sleep one night; he ended up being assaulted three to five times a week for four months. (Mr. Lavoie, in a criminal trial, pleaded guilty in 2011 to sexually assaulting 13 boys at the school – the Séminaire Saint-Alphonse, subsequently named Collège Saint-Alphonse – while he was a dorm supervisor.)
Quebec Superior Court held the religious order responsible in a ruling in July. The court decision recounts a harrowing catalogue of abuse carried out by the Redemptorist priests against young boys entrusted to their care, from sexual touching to sodomy.
The private school was a well-regarded institution next to the basilica in Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré. It drew many children from families of modest means, drawn to its reputation for high educational standards.
The abuse spread upward in the school hierarchy to include two school directors, who also turned a deaf ear to the students' laments, according to the judge's decision. When one complained about the predatory behaviour of two priests, the director retorted that the student should consider himself lucky to get so much attention and affection; he then reminded the boy that his mother had not paid his bill for three months.
Two other students who complained about abuse were threatened with expulsion.
The judge in the class action, Claude Bouchard, said the Redemptorist order could not have been unaware of the sexual predation by its priests.
"We are not talking about isolated acts committed by a few priests," he said in addressing the order's responsibility. He cited "repeated acts" by nine priests against more than 70 students during more than two decades. Six of the priests have since died.
"Whether it was in the dorm, the nearby priest's bedroom … in his school office, infirmary, school hallway, in the refectory or in a cottage belonging to the school a few kilometres away, is it possible that sexual assaults perpetrated in these different places could have occurred without the Redemptorists being informed one way or the other?" Justice Bouchard asked.
"The court doesn't believe it," he concluded.
More than 70 former students have joined the class action and more are expected to come forward.
The $20-million settlement will be submitted to the court for approval within 30 days.
A lawyer for the order, Pierre Baribeau, told Radio-Canada that the congregation was "relieved" about the compensation arrangement, and its members were also relieved that the case is coming to a close.