He sat in St. Mary’s Cathedral in January of 1983, for the special funeral mass presided over by the bishop: a solemn occasion befitting the untimely death of a much-loved priest.
“It was huge. Everyone in full regalia, and I was just one little person in this whole church,” recalls Brian.
“They saw him as a saint.”
On Wednesday, a lawsuit was filed in Calgary court against a religious order of the Catholic church, alleging decades-old sexual abuse at the hands of a Calgary priest and teacher at Bishop Grandin High School that left a former Calgary resident permanently scarred.
None of the allegations have been proven in court. Postmedia has agreed not to publish the plaintiff’s full name.
The suit is one of the first of its kind to be filed in Alberta since the province eliminated the two-year time limitation for victims of sexual abuse to sue in civil court, bringing the province in line with most Canadian jurisdictions, including Ontario and B.C.
The 53-year-old plaintiff is a former head altar boy, Catholic youth group member and Bishop Grandin student who alleges he was repeatedly abused by Father Frederick Cahill for several months in 1981.
Cahill was a priest and English teacher at Bishop Grandin from 1969 until his death in 1983. He also directed the Search program for youth in the Calgary diocese and was chaplain to the Columbus Boys’ Camp at Waterton Lakes National Park.
For Brian, it all began with a postcard that arrived from Cahill in the summer after Grade 10: “He said how much he appreciated my friendship and was hoping to get to know me better.”
The teen shared that he had an interest in joining the priesthood and Cahill responded enthusiastically.
“That was like the cat’s meow, you know what I mean? Because it’s like, ‘Oh wow, a priest wants to spend time with me and pay attention to me.'”
They saw each other with increasing frequency at school, in weekly masses with which Brian assisted as part of his youth group. The teen was thrilled when Cahill offered to teach him to drive when his own dad was too busy with work.
They would meet on Saturdays and drive together outside of Calgary, usually returning to Brian’s house by 6 p.m. “I remember he would put his hand on my thigh while I was driving. I tried not to think of it as a big deal, I felt he was a little lonely.”
Brian says if anybody had any reservations about Cahill taking particular interest in him, they didn’t share them.
The night everything changed, Cahill had even come to Brian’s door in Midnapore to meet his parents before the pair departed to go camping near Waterton Lakes.
Brian alleges Cahill took him to an empty summer camp operated by the Knights of Columbus because “he wanted to show me something.”
He recalls being asked to lie down on a blue vinyl-covered mattress inside one of the buildings at the camp.
“He laid on top of me. He told me he had the same experience when he was younger from a priest with red hair who loved him and respected him and got him into the priesthood,” says Brian. “I froze. The next thing I knew he undid my pants.”
The statement of claim alleges a pattern of repeated abuse that increased in frequency and intensity after that — often while camping, sometimes in Cahill’s station wagon, Brian says. Once, Brian says, he awoke while at a Catholic retreat in central Alberta to find Cahill standing over his bed.
All the while, Cahill made him feel he was “special” to him and in the eyes of the Catholic church and God.
Brian says he eventually tried to distance himself from Cahill, and, not long after, the priest died suddenly of natural causes in 1983. Brian worked up the courage to tell his father a couple of years later, only to have their concerns allegedly dismissed by another Calgary diocese priest to whom they reported the abuse in 1985.
“He said, ‘There’s nothing we can do about it, it happens.'”
The claim filed Wednesday states Cahill used his position of authority and trust to ensure the plaintiff did not tell anyone about what happened between them.
The suit also alleges the religious order Cahill belonged to, the Basilian Fathers of Toronto — a religious order of the Catholic church dedicated to teaching — was negligent in its duty to the plaintiff and vicariously responsible for what happened.
Brian says it took years for him to realize that what had happened to him when he was a teenager had damaged him permanently, leading to a loss of faith, feelings of shame, humiliation and symptoms of post-traumatic stress.
He says hearing the stories of other survivors of clergy abuse, including in the film Spotlight, helped persuade him to come forward.
The lawsuit seeks $3 million in damages.
“I’m tired of still experiencing flashbacks from the abuse from Father Cahill,” says Brian, who has since moved to Connecticut.
“I don’t have to feel ashamed anymore for something that was done to me against my will.”
A statement of defence disputing the allegations has not yet been filed.
The Calgary Catholic School District declined to comment on the matter Wednesday, citing privacy concerns involving personnel.
The Diocese of Calgary also declined comment on allegations contained in the claim that it had been informed about the abuse back in 1985.
Father George Smith, superior general for the Congregation of St. Basil, told Postmedia Wednesday they have not yet had time to review the statement of claim.
Smith says a preliminary search of Basilian records has not returned any previous complaints or concerns about Cahill, but added this did not necessarily mean a complaint had not been made to the diocese.
“We take these enormously seriously,” Smith said.
“The Basilian Fathers are sadly not unfamiliar with the suffering that has been caused by this kind of abuse. It has been our purpose in these last years to do everything that we can to be transparent and open and to respect not only the suffering of victims but also to accept our responsibility for their suffering.”
Robert Talach, the plaintiff’s London, Ont.-based lawyer, has represented abuse victims across Canada for the last 15 years. He says his client “is just trying to make something good out of something bad, and perhaps embolden other victims to come forward.”
Talach expects the suit could just be the beginning, now that Alberta has dropped the time limit on civil suits to recover damages for sexual assault and misconduct.
While it was possible to proceed with suits before, there was a significant burden on the plaintiff in many cases to demonstrate there was a psychological impediment to proceeding sooner.
“There was the ability to bring historical claims, but it was tough, it was restricted,” Talach says.
“I can’t over-emphasize the significance of making that change to the law and lifting the limitation period. It’s no longer safe for abusers in Alberta.”
Published on August 11, 2017