WARNING: This article contains graphic content and may affect those who have experienced sexual violence or know someone affected by it.
A Catholic diocese in Northern Ontario protected priests who faced allegations of sexual misconduct for decades, an investigation by Radio-Canada's Enquête has found.
From the 1950s to the 2010s, 12 priests and volunteers are said to have abused some 40 people; almost all were minors at the time. Rather than being punished, some priests were transferred to other parishes, with these transfers happening well into the 2010s.
The diocese, now known as Hearst-Moosonee, is about 11 hours north of Toronto and comprises about two dozen parishes, many along the northern edge of Highway 11, deep in the boreal forest.
Hearst-Moosonee is one of Ontario's most isolated dioceses, and the church remains an important institution there. It also helped settle the area with a mostly francophone population in the 1920s. This double isolation — geographical and linguistic — made the church an influential player in the region, and it remains involved in several local organizations.
"I think you can get away with more when you're hidden up in Francophone Ontario. It isn't going to be picked up by the Anglophone mainstream media. There isn't going to be as much attention," said Rob Talach, a London, Ont.-based lawyer who has frequently sued the Catholic Church over claims of abuse.
Today, some of the 12 priests are either dead or retired, but Enquête found that five priests and volunteers who faced allegations of past misconduct still worked in the diocese up until late February 2023.
'I was ashamed'
The 2020 arrest and trial on charges of abuse of Fernand Villeneuve, a longtime parish priest in Hearst-Moosonee, shocked many people in the area and prompted Enquête to dig further.
Villeneuve was found not guilty.
Enquête found other allegations of abuse going back decades – not only against Villeneuve, but other priests, too.
The testimonies Enquête collected regarding Villeneuve extend from the 1970s to the 2000s. Enquête spoke to three men who accused Villeneuve of masturbating in their presence.
Enquête also spoke with two women, who CBC agreed not to identify out of concern for their privacy. One complained of unwanted touching by Villeneuve and the other of sexual assault.
Villeneuve didn't reply to Enquête's request for comment.
The complainants who spoke to Enquête say they denounced other priests over the years to the diocese — to little effect.
Gilles, who asked to be identified by his first name only due to what happened in his past, says he was abused when he was 14 by Roger Pronovost, a theology student who worked with the local Catholic youth movement. For Gilles, who says he was also abused by his father, the church was a refuge.
"Roger showed me affection that I wish my father had given me. But by touching me … I fell in love with my abuser. Then I was ashamed afterwards," said Gilles, who is now in his 50s.
Pronovost went on to become a priest and worked in several parishes in the diocese.
Gilles called the bishop's office at the Hearst Diocese and denounced Pronovost almost a decade ago. He said he had confirmation from an official in the diocese that they were "going to do something."
"If you need to talk, call me back," he recalls them saying. "I will listen to you.'"
But Gilles says Pronovost was not punished after his call.
Enquête identified four other people who claim they suffered voyeurism, exhibitionism or sexual touching when they were children or adolescents at the hands of Pronovost from the late 1980s to the early 2000s.
Pronovost was charged with sexual assault, and in 2016, he pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of assault on a minor. Instead of receiving a reprimand, the diocese moved him to Mattice, Ont., some 30 kilometers from Hearst, where he worked until he retired in 2019.
These charges were unrelated Gilles's allegations.
In an interview with Enquête in December of last year, Pronovost denied that he abused Gilles or any other minor. When asked whether he had sexually touched a minor, he said, "Well, not really. I would have no reason to."
Pronovost said he pleaded guilty to the 2016 assault charge in order to put an end to his legal proceedings, and that doing so, for him, was a formality.
'I felt trapped'
Talach, the lawyer, who has been called a "priest hunter" because of all the Catholic clergy he has sued, says the appearance of the "old kind man" in these cases is deceiving.
"They're monsters because of the devastation they do to the young," he said.
Talach represented Yves Villeneuve, a man who says he was abused by another priest in the town of Hearst in the 1980s: Remi Lessard.
Villeneuve says he met Lessard when he was 17, at a time when his mother was sick. The following year, when he was 18, Villeneuve said the priest gave him massages and kisses on the neck.
"He said to me, 'I would like you to sleep with you,'" Villeneuve recalled in an interview with Enquete.
He said he lay in bed with Lessard, but warned him not to cross an imaginary line in the middle of the bed. "It wasn't long before his …penis brushed the back of my leg. I felt trapped."
Villeneuve said he pushed the priest away and ran, but the interaction left him traumatized. In the following decades, he would complain to the police and two bishops, but said he grew increasingly frustrated when Lessard continued being a priest and faced no consequences.
No charges were ever laid against Lessard.
In 2010, Villeneuve decided to secretly record Lessard in a meeting with him and the bishop at the time, Vincent Cadieux.
In that encounter, Lessard conceded to "having fallen in love with [Villeneuve] and of … possibly suggesting that you have sexual relations with me. That was unacceptable."
On the tape, Lessard apologized for the incident and said he went into therapy and no longer worked with young people.
Villeneuve hired Talach in a civil case to sue the church for his alleged abuse. After that tape was shared with the church's lawyers, they proposed an out-of-court settlement.
"I think without the audio recording, we'd still be in litigation right now," Talach said.
"When you're abused by anybody else on this planet," Talach added, "you always have the ability to go and pray to the Almighty to help you …That is all gone when the bad guy, the perpetrator or the enemy was part of that church."
The diocese agreed to pay Villeneuve $75,000 without admitting any wrongdoing. Lessard did not respond to Enquête's questions and denied any wrongdoing in his defense in that civil suit.
'Each case is a tragedy'
Pierre Olivier Tremblay is the current bishop of Hearst-Moosonee, named to the post last August. In December, Enquête informed him that a number of people had come forward to Enquête with allegations of abuse and sexual misconduct against priests in the diocese.
Tremblay called the allegations "awful."
"And each person is a life that is broken. Each case is a tragedy," said Tremblay.
"We are going to meet, and we are going to take the measures that need to be taken. So, if there are priests who must be removed from the ministry, it will be done."
Shortly after meeting with Enquête, Tremblay launched an internal investigation. He performed background checks on diocese employees and examined past abuse allegations. The three priests and two volunteers who were still working in the diocese and faced allegations have been either relieved of their duties or fired due to those internal investigations in the two months since his interview.
But for some, it's too little, too late.
"I will soon make a formal request to be excommunicated," said Villeneuve. "It's the only way I'm going to be able to sleep in peace knowing that I'm not part of that institution anymore."
Published on March 4, 2023