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After abuse claim against Quebec cardinal, 3 more women file complaint against church

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Pope Francis, left, and Cardinal Marc Ouellet arrive at the opening of a 3-day Symposium on Vocations in the Paul VI hall at the Vatican on Feb. 17, 2022. A series of claims made against Quebec clergy members in two class-action lawsuits against the church could be groundbreaking for victims who aren't children. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Gregorio Borgia

MONTREAL — After Quebec Cardinal Marc Ouellet was accused by a woman of sexual assault in a class-action lawsuit introduced this week, more women have come forward with similar allegations against members of the province's Catholic Church.

At least three women filed formal sexual assault complaints against the archdiocese of Montreal since the allegations against Ouellet were made public, Christine Kirouack, ombudswoman for the city's archdiocese, said in an interview Wednesday.

"It exploded since yesterday," Kirouack said about the introduction in Superior Court of two class-action lawsuits against members of the Catholic Church in Quebec, involving hundreds of alleged victims.

It was the media reports about the allegations against the cardinal, however, that led to numerous calls to Kirouack from women. She said the high-profile allegations by an adult woman broke the stereotype commonly associated with church abuse — that it involves young children, mostly boys.

"One of them told me when she saw media reports … she recognized herself in it and wanted to denounce it," Kirouack said. 

"It's encouraging to see it can open the doors to others. We are showing that this is serious." 

On Tuesday, Montreal-based law firm Arsenault Dufresne Wee Avocats filed two introductory applications for class action. The two lawsuits had recently been authorized by a Quebec judge, and one of them included the testimony of a woman identified as "F."

She accused the cardinal, once considered a front-runner to become pope, of several incidents of sexual assault between 2008 and 2010, including sliding his hand down her back and touching her buttocks at an event in Quebec City. At the time, the cardinal was the archbishop of Quebec while F., who was 23, was working as a pastoral intern at the Quebec archdiocese. 

Lawyer Justin Wee said his firm's class actions demonstrate that it's not only young children — particularly young boys — who face sexual misconduct by clergy members but also adult women.

In the first lawsuit, in which Ouellet is named, 101 alleged victims have accused about 88 priests or diocesan staff of sexual assault. Around 19 women are among the alleged victims, Wee said Wednesday in an interview.

"We tend to associate church abuse with children, but it also happens with adults," Wee said. "Recommendations were issued … and we need to put in place as much support for children as for adult victims."  

Université de Montréal religious studies professor Solange Lefebvre says the fact Ouellet's alleged victim was an adult could open the door to more adults coming forward with allegations against the church.

"Whether Ouellet is recognized as guilty or not, this makes it possible to approach more broadly the power in the Catholic Church as it can be exerted on adults," Lefebvre said in an interview Wednesday. 

Lefebvre said that while sex abuse of children within the Catholic Church is well-documented, the allegations against Ouellet could also create opportunities for prosecutors and police to look for potential victims among young women involved with the church.

"All of our attention, and for really good reasons, was on child abuse," Lefebvre said. 

"But here, the (alleged) victim is an adult and it gives the allegations a new proportion .… Up until now, the inquiries on allegations of abuse against the Catholic Church were all looking into young children." 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Aug. 17, 2022. 

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Virginie Ann, The Canadian Press