Warning: This story contains details some readers may find disturbing
Manitoba RCMP say they arrested a Catholic priest in a northern First Nation after receiving a complaint from an eight-year-old girl.
Supt. Scott McMurchy said the priest was arrested on May 27 in Little Grand Rapids, a Cree community 265 km northeast of Winnipeg.
“Unfortunately, we are here to tell you about an eight-year-old girl who was (allegedly) assaulted by someone she trusted,” McMurchy told a news conference Tuesday. “It was reported to us that this young girl from Little Grand Rapids First Nation was alone with the local Roman Catholic priest.
“She was helping him clean the church when he (allegedly) touched her inappropriately.”
The priest remains in custody in Winnipeg, McMurchy added.
“(The girl) said and told our investigators that when she tried to leave (St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church) he forced her to remain in the building. Finally able to get free, she ran home and told her mother what happened.”
McMurchy, acting criminal operation officer of D Division RCMP, said RCMP suspect there may be more victims.
“Additional youth have been identified as potential victims,” he told reporters. “Investigators believe there may be more.”
McMurchy said Savari also provided religious services in Pauingassi First Nation, located 24 km north of Little Grand Rapids and about 280 km northeast of Winnipeg.
“So that community, too, may have victims,” he said.
Suvari is from India, McMurchy noted, and has been working under the Archdiocese of St. Boniface in Winnipeg for the past six years.
The Archdiocese expressed “deep sorrow” at learning what (allegedly) happened to the girl and extended its sympathy to her family and community.
“The Archdiocese will do all it can to assist the victim who has come forward and any who make known their suffering,” said Daniel Bahuaud, communications coordinator for the Archdiocese, in a release.
“The Archdiocese will cooperate fully with the RCMP in their investigation.”
McMurchy expressed regret at sharing the girl’s experience publicly but said it was necessary to encourage others to come forward.
“However, we believe that other children may have been harmed in a similar way,” he explained.
Manitoba’s top First Nations leader became emotional when asked about the priest’s arrest.
“I have a granddaughter that’s eight years old,” said Grand Chief Cathy Merrick of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, her voice breaking.
“I can’t imagine somebody so vulnerable being taken advantage of.”
Merrick said the alleged crimes are similar to what happened to Indigenous children at former Indian residential schools.
“It just takes us back to (the physical and sexual abuse committed by religious personnel at) residential school; that it never really went away, and that it keeps on continuing,” Merrick said in an interview.
“We try to educate people as much as we can and it still happens, and it’s happening from foreign people coming into this country.”
AMC represents 62 of the 63 First Nations in Manitoba that are Anishinaabe (Ojibway), Nehetho (Cree), Oji-Cree, Dene and Dakota. While their people have had a long history with the Catholic Church, Merrick said priests are supposed to “save First Nations, not hurt First Nations.”
She said the church, which operated the majority of residential schools in Canada, should apologize to the victim, her family and the community once the priest’s charges are dealt with.
Pope Francis, on a visit to Canada last summer, apologized to Indigenous peoples for the abuse that occurred at residential schools that operated in Canada for 100 years until 1996.
Bahuaud said the Archdiocese of St. Boniface recognized the trauma that abuse caused.
“Every single abuse case involving a minor, no matter when it took place, is wrong,” he said in the release. “Each time the heinous crime of sexual abuse is reported, we must listen attentively and respond compassionately to those who have been victimized and hurt, particularly if the abuser is connected in any way with our church.
“And every time sexual abuse is reported, all victims of such abuse, as well as their families and communities, are hurt again. The Archdiocese of St. Boniface stands in solidarity with all victims of sexual abuse.”
McMurchy said the priest travelled to the communities to minister there.
He said the girl and her family were receiving victims’ services.