PEMBROKE - The Catholic Church was aware of the sexual abuse of young boys by Bernard Prince four decades ago, but allowed it to continue, lawsuits filed by nearly a dozen victims of the pedophile priest allege.
It's a charge the church vehemently denies, claiming an "extensive search" of documents from the time period unearthed "absolutely no evidence" that anyone ever reported any incidents of sexual abuse by the now-retired priest, who is serving a four-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to 12 charges of indecent and sexual assault involving young males between 1964 and 1984 and being found guilty of a 13th.
Lawyer Rob Talach, whose law firm, Ledroit Beckett, is representing 11 men who have each filed lawsuits against Msgr. Prince and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pembroke, says the older sister of one of the victims reported the abuse of her brother to a nun at her Catholic high school in 1968 while Msgr. Prince was at the St. Jean Baptiste parish in Pembroke.
Mr. Talach said the sister was assured the matter would be reported to senior officials of the diocese.
But it wasn't until two years ago, after the 72-year-old former Pembroke-area priest and Vatican official retired, that police launched a criminal investigation into the sexual abuse of the young boys.
"I think it just goes to show the attitude of the Catholic Church that they would just as well keep this buried," one of the men involved in the lawsuit said on Monday. His name is protected by a court-ordered publication ban.
Mr. Talach said the diocese also received a complaint about Msgr. Prince in the late 1990s, but he was allowed to continue to hold a prestigious post at the Vatican as secretary-general of the Pontifical Work for the Propagation of Faith.
Bruce Pappin, spokesman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pembroke, said he was not aware of a second complaint. Mr. Pappin said the priest who dealt with the complaints at the time has since died.
Any complaints would have been dealt with following the church protocol on abuse of young people by the clergy, he said.
There is no evidence of the complaint in 1968, said Mr. Pappin.
"There was an exhaustive search of all of the documentation and there is absolutely no evidence that the diocese knew," he said.
According to the statements of claim, the victims allege the diocese knew or should have known that Msgr. Prince had the "propensity to engage in such deviant behaviours" and took "no steps to stop the behaviour or protect the plaintiff(s)."
"All of these years, in my silence, I never thought the church knew about it," said the man who was sexually assaulted by Msgr. Prince in 1984, when he was 17 years old.
"Why would the Catholic Church allow this to continue and not do anything about it?"
The man said the abuse left him with nightmares and feelings of anguish and guilt. He said he'd like to see an "act of contrition" on the part of the church.
"If they had acted upon it when they first heard about it, I wouldn't be one of the victims standing here right now," he said, adding he has never received an apology from the church for what happened to him.
The 11 men - including 10 of the victims from the criminal proceedings - are seeking millions in damages to cover emotional and economic losses and to pay for counselling.
Two additional lawsuits, involving two of the other victims from the criminal proceedings, have also been filed by other law firms.
The males were between 10 and 16 when the assaults occurred. Court heard that the assaults usually occurred in bed, where a naked Msgr. Prince would fondle and masturbate the young males. In several cases, the complainants reported anal intercourse or oral sex, although Msgr. Prince denied those allegations.
Mr. Talach said the church has already provided some funding to victims for counselling. He said the victims he represents hope the Catholic Church will make institutional changes to prevent such sex abuse from occurring again.