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Class action filed against Montreal's Grey Nuns over alleged abuse at orphanage

Montreal's Grey Nuns are facing a class action lawsuit alleging physical and sexual abuse of vulnerable young children under the congregation's care at its orphanage in the city spanning nearly 50 years.

The allegations against the Roman Catholic religious community — formally known as the Sisters of Charity of Montreal — are contained in a document filed at the Montreal courthouse on Monday by Quebec City law firm Quessy-Henry-St-Hilaire on behalf of a plaintiff who spent a year at the facility in the late 1960s.

The allegations have not been tested in court, and the action has not yet been authorized by a judge.

The lead plaintiff, Jacques Beaulieu, alleges he was about three or four years old when he was physically and psychologically abused by members of the congregation, as well as sexually assaulted repeatedly by a priest in whose care he'd been placed by the order.

"These are not isolated gestures, but rather repeated systemic attacks, perpetrated by several people, against several victims over a long period," the filing reads. "The Grey Nuns have failed to put in place security and surveillance policies and measures to prevent or put an end to sexual, physical and psychological assault."

A call to the community was not immediately returned, and a public relations firm working on their behalf said they had no comment at this stage.

Beaulieu's lawyer, Jean-Daniel Quessy, says the plaintiff was prompted to come forward after seeing reports about a similar lawsuit filed in 2018 against the Sisters of Charity of Quebec for alleged assaults at its Mont d'Youville orphanage in Quebec City.

"The facts are kind of similar on multiple levels, so it struck a chord with Mr. Beaulieu when he saw what they were saying about the other case," Quessy said, adding several people have come forward since the action was filed.

Beaulieu says he was under the nuns' care for about a year along with his late sister Manon around 1968 or 1969, when his mother suffered from depression after a divorce.

In the filing, Beaulieu alleges several instances of physical abuse — being struck with a leather belt if he was still awake after bedtime, being force fed even when not hungry to the point of vomiting and being beaten with wooden rulers or slapped with an open hand.

He also alleges he was sexually abused in a car by a priest who was tasked with driving youngsters to Sunday mass.

Beaulieu says the abuse had a lasting impact — he was homeless for a time in his late teens, he still suffers from anxiety and stress and he hasn't been able to hold a stable job.

The plaintiff's sister died last year, but also reported sexual and physical abuse at the hands of the nuns during the same time frame, the filing says.

"It's unthinkable for us that the defendant as an organization wouldn't know about this," Quessy said.

The action is on behalf of anyone who was a victim of physical, sexual or psychological abuse while under the care of the congregation between 1925 and 1972 at the Creche d'Youville, which housed orphans and children whose parents were unable to take care of them.

People who have already been compensated for abuse in church-run organizations through a separate program for the "Duplessis orphans" are not covered by the proposed class action.

According to the filing, the orphanage located on Cote-de-Liesse Road in Montreal, welcomed 78,200 children over its history.

It could take more than a year for the case to be certified, Quessy said. After that, he said, proceedings could last three to four years if there's no settlement and it goes to trial.

"The objective is a dual one, the first and most important in my experience is not so much the money but to free themselves from a very difficult burden to bear," Quessy said. "It's very often an important step for people to grieve and heal themselves."

The other aspect is monetary — harm sustained as a child has consequences that last a lifetime — so the system that failed to protect children like Beaulieu needs to compensate them, Quessy said.

The filing makes no mention of damages — Quessy said that's something that would be argued later before a judge and would depend on a number of factors, including the abuse or injuries sustained. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on July 7, 2020.

Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press

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