“A Senegalese man is suing a Quebec-based Catholic congregation for $1.4 million, alleging one of its brothers sexually abused him when he was a boy in the 1980s at a school the religious order ran in Africa.
Legal experts consulted by The Canadian Press said they weren’t aware of another case where a Canadian religious organization was taken to court for the alleged actions of its members in another country.
Max Silverman, the Senegalese plaintiff’s Montreal-based lawyer, said the congregation indicated it will contest the Quebec court’s jurisdiction, setting up a legal battle over whether the province is the best place to hear the evidence.
“The other side has made it clear they intend to contest the jurisdiction of the court and that debate will happen in the fall,” said Silverman, who filed the suit on behalf of the man who has chosen to remain anonymous.
Known in court documents as NBS, the plaintiff alleges a now-deceased Quebec member of the Brothers of the Sacred Heart congregation sexually abused him between 1984 and ’87, at a school the order ran in Kaolack, Senegal.
The legal team for the congregation did not return a request for comment.
Silverman’s case is not the only legal proceedings against the Brothers.
The congregation is also the target of a $15-million class action lawsuit authorized last November in Quebec Superior Court. At least 18 brothers are accused of abusing male students at the College Mont-Sacre-Coeur in Granby over a span of decades.
According to the suit filed by Silverman, NBS alleges the abuse began when he was about 12 years old at the hands of Marcel Courteau. Courteau died in Quebec in 2017 at the age of 92.
The alleged abuse began with Courteau caressing the plaintiff and telling him he was cute.
“Over the course of the next two years or so, Brother Courteau … repeatedly engaged the plaintiff in inappropriate actions, all of which constitute abuse and sexual assault,” according to court documents.
NBS, who lives in Senegal, is remaining anonymous because he feels his life will be in danger if people in his country find out about the alleged abuse, said Silverman.
“In Senegal there is a real culture of homophobia,” he said. “That extends to the point where a young person, through no fault of his own, if he is a man and associated with an assault by another man he is considered a homosexual and his life is in danger.”
The lawsuit accuses the Brothers of the Sacred Heart of being liable toward NBS because the congregation was acting as Courteau’s school principal when the alleged abuse occurred.
“Further, the defendant … was grossly negligent and failed to remedy a situation that it knew or should have known about, thereby aggravating the damages suffered by the plaintiff,” reads the statement of claim.
Lawyer James Yap, who represents people and communities suing Canadian companies for complicity in human rights violations overseas, said “there is reason for optimism” from the plaintiff perspective regarding the upcoming jurisdiction debate.
Article 3135 of Quebec’s Civil Code allows a court to “decline jurisdiction if it considers that the authorities of another State are in a better position to decide the dispute.”
Traditionally, Yap said, that article has been an obstacle to similar claims against companies and “Quebec courts have been particularly reticent to hear those types of cases.”
But new technologies, he said, have diminished the comparative convenience of holding these cases in the foreign state where the alleged violations occurred.
Witnesses can testify via teleconference and evidence can be digitized, said Yap, who is not involved in the legal proceedings.
And the key point of contention, he said, “factually speaking, is going to be what the congregation knew or did not know and all that evidence is going to be in Quebec. So in this particularly case, there is actually reason for optimism for the plaintiff.”
Yap said he doesn’t know of a similar case filed in Canadian court against a religious order for the alleged crimes of its members in another country.
McGill University Prof. Catherine Walsh, who focuses on private international law and international business law, told The Canadian Press she too is not aware of any similar lawsuit filed in Canadian courts before.
Silverman said the congregation has until the fall to file any contestations of jurisdiction.
Meanwhile, Robert Kugler, one of the lawyers who filed the separate class action against the congregation on Feb. 5, said 70 people initially came forward alleging abuse by at least 18 religious brothers at the school in Granby.
“There is no doubt in my mind that every single year there were a number of kids who were abused,” Kugler said in an interview. “The question is how many (more) will come forward. More people are calling. I have messages to return now. The phone rings, if not every day, every few days.”
Kugler said a judge will soon set a timetable for the class action proceedings.”