Supreme Court rejects Catholic order’s appeal of $2.6M sex abuse award

The Supreme Court of Canada has rejected a Catholic order's appeal of a $2.6 million ruling to the victim of a convicted pedophile priest. Adrian Ghobrial has reaction from the victim's lawyer at the end of the long legal battle.

By Adrian Ghobrial and Jessica Bruno

CAUTION: This story contains graphic content related to allegations of sexual assault and might be upsetting to some readers. If you or someone you know are victims of sexual violence, find local support through the Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres; the Government of Canada has compiled a list of sexual misconduct support centres. If you are under 18 and need help contact the Kid’s Help Phone online or at 1-800-668-6868.

For his entire high school career, Rod MacLeod was sexually assaulted and raped by a now-convicted pedophile priest.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld a multi-million-dollar court award in his favour, denying the priest’s religious order the opportunity to launch another appeal.

“It is possible to achieve justice in Canada,” MacLeod said in a statement.

MacLeod’s case against Fr. William ‘Hod’ Marshall has made national headlines as one of the few suits against a Catholic priest in Canada ever to go to trial.

In 2018, a civil jury awarded MacLeod $2.6 million in damages. He was sexually assaulted by Marshall in the 1960s while he was a student at St. Charles Catholic High School in Sudbury, where Marshall was a teacher. The abuse occurred throughout MacLeod’s high school career.

“It was about 50 times altogether,” he said. Much of it occurred at school, and in Marshall’s gym teacher office.

“He would also catch you in the hallways, in the school and drag you into a classroom that wasn’t being used. Lock it all up,” said MacLeod. “Then he started coming to the house.”

As MacLeod became adept at avoiding Marshall at school, he said the priest asked his parents to let him spend time alone with their son, supposedly to give him driving lessons. From a devout Catholic family, MacLeod said his parents were honoured that a priest had taken their son under his wing and had no idea what was going on.

It wasn’t until more than 50 years later, when MacLeod said he was in the car listening to a radio program about sexual predators when he realized he probably wasn’t the only victim, and he should come forward so that others would too.

Marshall admitted to assaulting MacLeod and 16 other children during his decades-long career as a priest and educator. He pled guilty and was convicted in 2011. He was also separately convicted of assaulting two boys in Saskatchewan.

At a 2012 deposition as part of a civil case against him, Marshall admitted to assaulting boys at nearly every school he worked at.

He said whenever he was confronted about his actions, he would confess, and would often be moved to another school. Along with St. Charles in Sudbury, he worked at schools in Sault Ste. Marie, Windsor, Saskatoon, and Texas. He also had multiple stints at Toronto’s St. Michael’s College School.

All the institutions were operated or staffed by the Catholic order of priests he belonged to, the Congregation of St. Basil, also known as the Basilian Fathers or Basilians, whose headquarters are in Toronto.

Marshall died at 92 in 2014. Before he died, he voluntarily gave up his priesthood.

MacLeod’s multi-million-dollar verdict is a Canadian record for clergy abuse. The Basilians lost an appeal at provincial court last fall.

Just before Christmas 2019, the group of Catholic Priests filed leave to appeal at the Supreme Court of Canada, disputing at least $1.5 million of the damages.

Lawyer Rob Talach has been working with MacLeod on this case for years.

“I would not expect a Christian organization to be using tax-free dollars, charitable money given to them in good faith, to do legal battle after legal battle to try and suppress a victim who is seeking compensation,” Talach said.

He adds the appeal also had legal implications for victims across Canada.

For people who were abused as children, “it’s now legally easier to get compensated. That’s a good thing,” he explained. “You’d think the Church would want that, [not] to reverse that and make it more difficult for victims in general.”

The Basilians did not respond to our request for comment on the ruling before deadline Thursday.

CityNews has been following MacLeod’s case for months and recently asked the Basilians why they were appealing the case.

They refused to answer our question, declining to comment on specific priests, survivors or events. Their lawyer did forward a statement on some of our questions about policy and the history of the Church’s understanding of sex abuse.

“There has never been any doubt or misunderstanding that sexual abuse of a child is, and always has been, wrong,” the Basilians wrote.

They go on to say there was a historical belief by professionals and the Basilians, that children wouldn’t remember sexual abuse or be impacted by it. They also say a lack of understanding of attraction to children, contributed to the thinking that sex abuse “was a moral failing, and could be addressed by deeper spiritual focus and commitment.”

The statement adds they “have adopted policies that reduce or negate opportunities for potential abuse.”

Tragedy fatigue and cultural shift

Since the 1990s, Canadian Catholic churches and religious orders, including the Basilians, have implemented codes of conduct and sexual abuse policies.

Dr. Nuala Kenny, a Catholic nun and pediatrician who specializes in treating victims of abuse, said many good priests and bishops feel overwhelmed by the stories of victims who have come forward.

“This tragedy fatigue has developed a certain type of burnout, and one of my worries is you get complacent about policies and protocols being enough, and you don’t look at what is underlying,” she said.

Over her 40-year career, Dr. Kenny has served on Church commissions and authored books calling on the institution to make cultural shifts to prevent abuse. She believes the Church needs to become less hierarchical, more open to the communities it serves and less concerned about protecting its own reputation.

Ahead of the original trial, the Basilians sent Macleod multiple settlement offers.

By deciding not to take them, he said he ran the risk of having to pay the Basilians’ legal fees, even if he won. The 70-year-old said if this was about the money for him, he would have taken a settlement and disappeared.

“They offered a lot of money in order to put a stop to it,” he said. “But you see when they put a stop to it, they also put a lid on it, so people don’t hear about it. My motivation was to make sure that as wide an audience as possible hears what’s going on.”

It was a decision that carried the risk of financial ruin, even if he won.

“The jury could have come back and said, ‘Oh, yes, we think it was terrible, and we award you $250,000′,” but if that didn’t exceed what the Basilians had offered him to settle, “I’d be responsible for the legal fees, which is hundreds of thousands of dollars for the other side.”

When the original jurors delivered their decision on MacLeod’s case, they concluded the Basilians had concealed Marshall’s behaviour to avoid “scandal,” were “grossly negligent,” and “put children in harm’s way.”

Talach describes the appeal as anything but “pro-victim. It’s definitely anti-victim, and it revictimized a man who was abused as a tween who just turned 70, who’s had a long journey, a tough fight, a trial, a Court of Appeal hearing, and now they want a third shot. When is enough is enough?”

“You would think that here we’re dealing with a religious order now,” adds MacLeod. “They’re supposed to be the keepers of the ethics and how we’re supposed to relate to God and to each other. They’re supposed to be the ones that lead us, if you will. And their behavior has been the opposite. It’s been a behavior of only being interested in the money, only listening to their lawyers, never listening to their hearts, never saying, ‘Well, what would Jesus do in this circumstance?’ Not even on the table.”

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