The judge presiding over an inquiry into allegations of child sexual abuse has ruled that a local Catholic diocese is a public institution – a decision that delights alleged victims but concerns others.
In a ruling handed down May 1, Justice G. Normand Glaude said that in response to abuse allegations in Cornwall, Ontario, the Diocese of Alexandria-Cornwall "is allegedly one of the most significant players in this matter."
In a May 1 statement, Glaude said the diocese is a public institution because of its objectives "such as providing assistance to the poor, strengthening and promoting education, promoting community values, and the elimination of disease and sickness."
Glaude is responsible for presiding over the Cornwall Public Inquiry, which is investigating the response of public institutions and the events surrounding decades of child sex abuse allegations in Cornwall. The Ontario government set up the inquiry in April 2005.
Dallas Lee, who represents the abuse victims, said his clients were ecstatic that the diocese was declared a public institution and that alleged victims would be allowed to testify.
"Both of these rulings will go a long way in making my clients feel like the inquiry has something to offer them and that victims are going to be recognized as vital to its success," said Lee. "They will now be able to tell their stories, and all of those institutions involved will be subject to the full scrutiny of a public inquiry."
David Sherriff-Scott, the diocese's lawyer, said he was disappointed by the decision.
"The commissioner (judge) has concluded that any organization that provides any services to the public is basically a public institution," Sherriff-Scott said. "So, for example, any private charity he (the judge) would consider a public institution, even if they received no government funding and were not controlled in any way by the government.
"This is a startling proposition and a departure from established law," he said. "I'm troubled by the message this sends about how the diocese will be treated in this inquiry."
Sherriff-Scott, who said he is seeking a review of the ruling, said the church is not equipped to investigate allegations of sexual abuse in the same way the criminal justice system is and should not be held to the same standards.
Peter Lauwers, a Toronto constitutional lawyer, said there is "no way one would naturally consider the Catholic Church" or any other denomination a "public institution," and "the decision just simply tortures the expression beyond its natural and normal meaning."
Lauwers said he is concerned about the intrusion this decision represents into the institutional structure of the church.
Lauwers acknowledged legitimate public questions have been raised about what position the diocese might have been in to either stop or prevent alleged criminal activity, but he said those questions could have been addressed by the diocese as a private-sector organization.