BATHURST, N.B. — Lawyers representing sexual abuse victims of former New Brunswick priest Levi Noel have filed 11 lawsuits alleging that members of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Bathurst covered up his crimes.
A statement of claim filed Friday in the province's Court of Queen's Bench alleges clergy failed to properly respond to Noel's conduct and promoted "a culture of secrecy with respect to the sexual misconduct of clergy which was intended to benefit the diocese rather than stop the misconduct or assist the victims."
In January 2010, Noel was sentenced to eight years in prison after pleading guilty to 22 charges of sexual assault against 18 boys between 1958 and 1980.
Lawyer Robert Talach said clergy at the diocese had a responsibility to act sooner.
"He would have faced justice long before 2010," Talach told a news conference in this city of 12,000.
"His list of victims would have been much shorter, and the overall damage he did to this community and this church much less."
Talach's London, Ont.-based Ledroit Beckett law firm has now filed 20 lawsuits in total against Noel and the diocese, despite an ongoing settlement process.
"Twenty victims who have refused the pieces of silver offered to them through the conciliation process. Victims who want truth, prevention and accountability before compensation," Talach said.
"Their silence is not for sale."
Lawyers for Noel and the diocese have not filed statements of defence in any of the cases. Talach said they have until mid-September to respond in court to the most recent statements of claim.
The allegations have not been proven in court.
Rev. Wesley Wade, who speaks for the diocese, would not comment Friday on the new lawsuits because they are before the courts.
But former Supreme Court Judge Michel Bastarache was hired by the diocese in 2010 to meet with Noel's victims and make recommendations for compensation.
Wade said that process is still underway.
"We thought it was respecting both the victims and the Diocese of Bathurst, but it seems to me, with that legal action, that some of the victims have chosen another way — a legal way," Wade said.
"That's democracy and we'll deal with that eventually through the legal process."
Denis Theriault, a 69-year-old plaintiff who filed one of the 11 lawsuits Friday, said he felt relieved to go public with his story.
"I was jammed in a hole but I came out and it feels good," he said at the news conference.
In his statement of claim, Theriault alleges he told a priest he was abused when he was 13.
"Following the abuse, the plaintiff out of fear for his soul, confessed the activities with Noel to a Father Stanislas Robichaud whom … pulled the plaintiff out of the confessional booth and struck him violently with a slap upon his head," the claim says.
In a later instance, Theriault alleges that Bishop Camille Andre Leblanc, the diocese's bishop at the time, told him to remain silent about Noel's crimes, the claim says.
"After commencing to inform the bishop of the actions of Noel, the plaintiff was instructed to place his hand on the bishop's Bible and swear to God that he will keep this information secret for the rest of his life."
Wade said all clergy named in the statement of claim have died.
Theriault said he has suffered from bad dreams and is now speaking out because people are finally listening to him.
He said he wasn't willing to participate in the conciliation process because he didn't want to accept money from a process set by the Roman Catholic Church.
"It was money to shut up," he said.
Wade said Noel's abuse was a "sad situation."
"Our bishop has apologized to the victims and we still do so, and we also do our best to avoid these situations in the future," he said.
"I think that's all we can do."
Theriault's claim leaves it to the court to determine what, if any damages, should be awarded.