The federal government has intervened in a man’s request for Catholic Church records in his civil suit alleging sexual abuse at Westminster Abbey’s high school seminary in Mission, B.C.
Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs submitted a letter to the B.C. Supreme Court on April 19, certifying that the Apostolic Nuncio – a Holy See ambassador of Rome – and his office’s archives have diplomatic immunity from discovery.
Sandy Kovacs, the lawyer for the plaintiff Mark O’Neill, was in court on April 28 arguing there are personal-injury exceptions in Canadian law regarding diplomatic immunity. The judge has currently reserved his decision.
“(The church) clearly notified Foreign Affairs who have issued the Certificate of Immunity to the court,” Kovacs said in an email. “The Nuncio can consent to provide the records requested. Clearly, that consent is not forthcoming.”
Mission’s Seminary of Christ the King – the last remaining youth seminary in Canada – is currently the subject of two civil suits from former students, Mark O’Neill and another man who’s staying anonymous.
Both are alleging sexual abuse at the seminary in the 1970s while they were teenagers, and both testified at the 1997 criminal trial of Harry Sander (Father Placidus) which resulted in his acquittal on all six charges.
Kovacs is the lawyer in both cases, which name the abbey and attached seminary, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Vancouver, and the estate of (now deceased) Sander as respondents. O’Neill’s case names two other alleged abusers, a then-college-aged seminarian named Shawn Rohrbach, and Brother Emerick Lazar.
O’Neill’s application filed on March 24 seeks correspondence, investigation records and other documents related to sexual abuse at the seminary, as well as material related to the 1997 criminal proceedings against Sander.
Discovery so far has revealed an anonymous letter written by “Former Seminarians,” that was delivered in 1987 to the head abbot at the seminary via the Nuncio alleging that Sander was “known to have been involved in homosexual activities with high school seminarians.”
The seminary’s legal team have filed a response stating there are no other communications between Apostolic Nunciature and the seminary regarding Sander’s alleged sexual abuse.
The application asserts the letter was never disclosed to the RCMP prior to the 1997 trial, resulting in a “gross miscarriage of justice.” O’Neill’s testimony at the time was questioned by the judge after he mixed up dates.
Both the civil cases are alleging the institution was systematically negligent in failing to protect them, and complicit in a entrenched clerical culture that promoted the “psychosexual immaturity of priests and seminarians, perpetuating sexually deviant behavior.”
They claim Westminster Abbey’s seminary has produced numerous convicted or credibly accused pedophiles.
“It is my clients’ firm position that the Order of Saint Benedict are simply not competent to operate a school for children and keep children safe from serious harm,” Kovacs said. “Boys as young as 13 are still entering Grade 8 studies and living amongst the Benedictine monks.”
O’Neill’s legal team has applied to have Rohrbach appear for discovery, and have been granted access to the retired 93-year-old former archbishop of Vancouver for a deposition.
The trial date for O’Neill’s case is set for Sept. 12, 2022, and should last 20 days. The defendants have denied all the allegations, and none have been proven in court.