Settlements end $100M clergy abuse lawsuit against Sault diocese

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A proposed class-action lawsuit launched by sexual abuse survivors on Manitoulin Island has been discontinued after 29 victims reached individual settlements.

The $100-million claim was filed against the Jesuit Fathers of Upper Canada, also known as the English Canada Province, as well as the Roman Catholic Episcopal Corporation of the Diocese of Sault Ste. Marie, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Sault Ste. Marie, the estate of father George Epoch and the estate of Brother O’Meare.

Filed by plaintiffs known only as I.P. and M.P.  in 2015, the lawsuit was proposed on behalf of “all persons who were abused as children by clergy or staff of the Holy Cross Mission in Wikwemikong, as well as all parents, spouses, children and siblings of the abused persons above.” The individual settlements were not disclosed to the court.

The statement of claim was issued at that time, seeking “in excess of $50 million in general damages and special damages in excess of $50 million.”

In that statement, another Jesuit priest is included: Brother Hinton. The court documents state his whereabouts, or if he’s even still alive, is unknown.

I.P. alleges they were sexually abused by Father Epoch during the priest’s time serving the communities in and around Wikwemikong from 1959 to 1963, 1969 to 1971, and 1983 to 1986.

M.P. alleges that Brother O’Meare sexually abused them as well as child members of the church from 1950 and 1960. It is alleged that Brother Hinton sexually abused child members of the church from 1963 to 1970, though no specific name is attached to the claim.

The motion for discontinuance of the class action suit was filed by Michael Troy of Merchant Law Group, and the decision made by Justice Paul Perell.

The decision states that from the time of the claim until 2019, the pleadings were completed, but no progress was made in the proposed class action. “Putative Class Council (Merchant Law) has never moved to have the action set down for a certified motion.”

In 2019, then-Chief Duke Peltier and Senior Policy Analyst Sandra Wabegijig of Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory approached counsel for the Jesuit Fathers of Upper Canada and asked that the claim be resolved by an informal process “that would be fair and not re-traumatize and re-victimize the putative Class Members.”

As a result, class members were encouraged to pursue their claims individually, and that compensation would be negotiated in accordance with the awards made in the Federal Day School Settlement, which was a class action similar to the Indian Residential Schools Class Action.

As such, I.P. and M.P. as well as 27 other class members retained the Merchant Law Group to act in “individual actions,” though the decision reads that these settlements were “without court approval,” and resulted in the class action being “abandoned.” Each class member underwent a credibility assessment and 25 were “examined for discovery.”

In his decision to discontinue the class action suit, Perell states that the proposed action class was not “commenced for improper purpose,” but also states he has no way to determine whether the 27 members who settled were influenced by the abandonment of the claim. He said without analysis of the settlement, he cannot rule out collusion or champerty — an agreement in which a person with no previous interest in a lawsuit finances it with a view to sharing the disputed property if the suit succeeds.

He believes the commencement of the class action was “ultimately used as a means to recruit clients.”

“It may be that the negotiated settlements and the fees are reasonable and in the best interests of the putative class members who settled, but I cannot conclude that based on the information proffered on this discontinuance motion,” wrote Perell.

His decision goes on to recommend that anyone that is not among those who settled should seek legal advice outside of Merchant Law Group, but notes that as the class action was clearly discussed in the community, and no other survivors contacted the law firm, that there are likely no more filings to come.

Perell stated in his decision that he does not feel the legal test for approval of a discontinuance has been met, “the dilemma is that refusing a discontinuance is futile,” in that there is no longer representative plaintiffs willing to represent the class members, as I.P. and M.P. had previous to their individual settlements.

You can read the full decision here, which notes recommendations for any possible survivors and those with questions.

Jenny Lamothe covers vulnerable and marginalized communities for 

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