Bethany Lindsay, CBC News
A Vancouver Island woman who says she was sexually abused as
a child by a former Nazi turned Catholic priest has settled her lawsuit against
Father Gerhard Hartmann repeatedly sexually assaulted and fondled the victim over a period of three years at St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church in Nanaimo, B.C., beginning in 1976, when she was just 10 years old, according to the notice of claim.
"It happened during confession, which for a Catholic is a sacred time," the plaintiff said. Because she is a victim of alleged sexual abuse, CBC has agreed to refer to her by her initials, S.P.
"I was in a very vulnerable position and I was just a young child. It's such an abuse of power on so many levels — the physical assault, it's a mental assault and it's a spiritual assault."
Her lawsuit, filed in February 2020, alleged the Roman Catholic Diocese of Victoria was vicariously liable for her abuse, saying it was negligent and failed in its duties to protect parishioners from harm.
The lawsuit was settled out of court earlier this month on undisclosed terms, but S.P. said the resolution is "satisfactory to all parties."
Bishop Gary Gordon provided a written statement addressing the settlement on behalf of the diocese.
"The Diocese of Victoria is committed to responding fairly and compassionately to victims of sexual abuse. We recognize that this information may be difficult for people to hear but may also be an opportunity for other victim-survivors to come forward so that in the light of truth, there may be healing and justice," Gordon said.
Priest was 'always proud' of role in war: plaintiff
Hartmann, who died in 2015, came to Canada from Germany after the Second World War. He was a member of the Hitler Youth, S.P. said, and defended Berlin during the Soviet advance.
According to S.P., that history was common knowledge in the church community.
"He was always proud of it," she said.
Both Hartmann's autobiography and an obituary published in the diocese's newsletter, however, maintain that Hartmann was forced into defending Nazi Germany.
He was ordained as a priest in January 1976. S.P. alleges he began assaulting her just a few months later, and continued to do so until he left Nanaimo in 1979.
"It only ended because Father Hartmann was transferred," she said.
S.P.'s claim alleges Hartmann used his position of authority to ensure she didn't tell anyone. It notes that Catholic children at the time are raised to believe that priests are God's chosen representatives on Earth, and that disobeying the rule of God would land them in hell.
The lawsuit also claims S.P. wrote to the diocese about her abuse in the early 2000s, but received a "dismissive" response.
S.P. said the alleged abuse has had a profound effect on her life, and she is still grappling with the fallout. The consequences have included mental health problems, addiction and suicidal thoughts.
But she added that taking legal action has helped.
"It was an important process for me to go through because I've lived my whole life as a victim, and now, for the first time, I'm beginning to feel like I'm more of a survivor," S.P. said.
One of her main reasons for speaking out is that she believes there may be others across Vancouver Island who were also abused, and she wants them to feel comfortable coming forward.
According to the diocese obituary, Hartmann went on to serve in churches across the north island and in Port Alberni, Campbell River, Sooke and Victoria.
Her lawyer, Robert Talach, urged anyone with a similar experience to speak to police or trusted people in their lives.
"I would implore people not to go to the diocese," he said. "For me, there is no track record of any diocese in the Catholic Church dealing with this effectively, and I would encourage people to go to secular resources."
S.P. said she'd like to see the church take more proactive steps to protect Catholics, rather than waiting for victims to speak out.
"I think it's really hard on the victims when they are the ones that need to come forward in order for change to happen," she said.
"It needs to come from within the church. The church needs to listen to the victims and then create a system that is really protective of everyone."
Published on December 15, 2022