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Will pope's envoy deliver records in B.C. priest sex abuse case?

The pope's ambassador to Canada won't have to hand over records pertaining to B.C. priest sexual abuse allegations unless he agrees to a request from the defendants in the case, B.C. Supreme Court ruled July 4.
Church pew. Photo: Getty Images

A man who alleges he was sexually abused by Mission Roman Catholic priests and a seminary employee may not get relevant records in possession of the pope's envoy to Canada — but there's a chance he could get them from the defendants.

Mark O'Neill is seeking damages for sexual abuse he alleges he suffered as a teen during his time at a Mission Roman Catholic seminary from 1974 to 1978. He was 13- to 17-years-old at the time.

The defendants listed in the suit are the Seminary of Christ the King; Westminster Abbey Ltd.; the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Vancouver, a Corporation Sole; Emerick Lazar; Harold Vincent Sander, a.k.a. Dom Placidus Sander; Shawn Rohrbach; and John Doe.

In a March 25 application to B.C. Supreme Court Master John Bilawich, O'Neill and lawyer Sandra Kovacs sought an order that Rev. Ian Jurkovic, the Apostolic Papal Nuncio to Canada, hand over multiple records.

Those included:

• correspondence between the seminary, the abbey, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vancouver and the papal nuncio about sexual misconduct at the seminary;

• speaking notes from meetings attended by the nuncio where sexual misconduct has been addressed;

• investigation records arising from a May 1987 anonymous letter to the nuncio from seminarians; and

• investigation records about sexual misconduct at the seminary.

In the alternative, O'Neill's lawyer Sandra Kovacs had applied to have the abbey and seminary authorize the nuncio to release the records.

Bilawich noted the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development filed an indirect response on behalf of the nuncio. It provided an April 19 certificate stating the records were inviolable under the Foreign Missions and International Organizations Act and that since Aug. 27, 2021, Archbishop Ivan Jurkovic has been the papal ambassador and has diplomatic immunity.

Bilawich said he had no evidence that he had the jurisdiction to order the nuncio to release records.

"The application for an order that the apostolic nuncio produce the classes of records sought is dismissed based on a lack of jurisdiction and based on the inviolability of the apostolic nuncio's archives," he ruled.

Bilawich said the seminary and abbey don't object to signing the requested authorization but said they are unaware of any additional correspondence between them and the nuncio regarding the anonymous allegations.

"Counsel expressed doubt that any authorization signed by his clients would cause the document sought to be produced," Bilawich said. But, Bilawich said, if documents are produced, they are to go to abbey and seminary lawyers first for review.

"If they contain the names of alleged victims or their family members other than the plaintiff, those names should be redacted until and unless the persons involved are notified and give written consent to their names being disclosed or until further court order authorizing such disclosure," Bilawich said.

Allegations detail sexual and physical abuse

O'Neill alleges Rohrbach, a college student employed at the seminary, sexually abused him while he was a student. He alleges Rohrbach performed oral sex on him and that he pestered younger boys in a shower room.

O'Neill alleges Lazar, a priest, broke his arm. Sander, also a priest, then allegedly delayed access to medical treatment to conceal the fracture. Sander died in 2021, according to the suit.

The claim alleges the defendants were systematically negligent and had acted "complicity in a culture of entrenched clericalism and distorted beliefs that implicitly promoted the psychosexual immaturity of priests and seminarians, perpetuating sexually deviant behaviour."

O'Neill is one of three men making such claims.

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