TRACADIE-SHEILA - As Lévi Noël was led away by police, the courtroom packed with his victims and their families stood silent for a moment, then erupted into applause.
The 84-year-old retired Roman Catholic priest, who worked on the Acadian peninsula for three decades, was sentenced to eight years in prison Friday in Tracadie-Sheila provincial court.
Noël pleaded guilty to 22 sex-related charges involving 18 boys. The incidents took place between 1958 and 1981 while he was working at eight different parishes in the Bathurst diocese. His victims were between eight and 16 at the time.
During sentencing, Judge Donald LeBlanc denounced Noël for taking advantage of his position of authority, breaking the trust of the community and the church, and manipulating vulnerable children.
LeBlanc said he is not convinced that Noël regrets what he did, or fully understands the impact the abuse has had on the victims and their families.
Many of the victims were abused once a week on an ongoing basis for several years, the judge said.
Crown prosecutor Pierre Gionet told reporters outside court that he believes it is the longest sentence ever handed to a priest for sex-related charges in Canada.
"I'm extremely satisfied," Gionet said. "Before we were giving sentences that were too low. I think judges realize the impact on the victims is serious and that we should denounce offences committed by priests in positions of trust towards young children."
Gionet said it is up to Corrections Canada to decide when Noel will be eligible for parole, but it will likely be after about one-sixth to one-third of the sentence.
Later in the day, three men who were abused by Noël as boys held a news conference at a nearby hotel, calling on the Bathurst diocese to apologize, provide services for victims and to take steps to ensure such abuse never happens again.
The men decided to remove their names from a court publication ban to speak out about what happened. The group is calling on others who have been abused to come forward and seek help.
"I felt like I had been carrying a million pounds on my shoulders my whole life, until I spoke," said Conrad Brideau, one of the victims. "It's the first step."
Each of the men had photos of themselves as children pinned to their shirts.
"We wanted to show what we looked like at the time it happened," Brideau said.
"We were just boys."
Donald Landry, another of the victims, said that, although he was pleased Noël was sentenced to eight years in prison, no sentence would ever be enough.
"We've lived with this for 45 years," he said. "He (Noël) won't be in prison that long."
Robert Talach, a London, Ontario-based lawyer, helped the victims organize the press conference. He said several of them are considering civil litigation. Talach said it's up to the Bathurst diocese to determine whether that happens.
"If they do the right thing right now, and put some policies into place, and look to offer any compensation to those who seek it, a lawsuit would be unnecessary," he said.