This story contains details about child abuse that may be distressing to some readers. Canada’s National Residential School Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day at 1-866-925-4419.
An order of Roman Catholic priests is picking up the legal tab for one of its own on trial for historical sexual abuse at a residential school in Manitoba.
Rev. Ken Thorson, spokesperson for Oblates of Mary Immaculate Lacombe (OMI), said his Ottawa-based order is supplying the defence lawyer for Rev. Arthur Massé.
“Yes, Arthur Massé is an Oblate priest,” Thorson confirmed in an email to APTN News.
“It’s important to remember that Oblates take a vow of poverty,” he continued, “where they own nothing as individuals and share everything in common. As part of this commitment, they are provided with basic supports in retirement, even if they have been removed from active ministry.”
Thorson noted these “basic supports include legal representation, in the interest of ensuring a fair trial.
“We recognize that this may be unsettling to some and want to be clear that we make no assumption of innocence in fulfilling our obligations.”
Massé, 93, has pleaded not guilty in Winnipeg’s Court of King’s Bench to one count of indecent assault after a woman alleged he attacked her in a girls’ bathroom when she was a 10-year-old student.
Although no longer a serving priest, Massé wore his clerical collar to court and while testifying on his own behalf.
The complainant, Victoria McIntosh, told court Massé pushed open a bathroom stall door at the Fort Alexander Indian Residential School, grabbed and lifted her, pinned her against the wall and tried to fondle her with his other hand. She said she managed to turn her head and get away while he landed a kiss on her cheek.
Massé was either an administrator or teacher at the time in Fort Alexander, which is now Sagkeeng First Nation, located about an hour northeast of Winnipeg, McIntosh testified at the two-day trial.
Justice Candace Grammond has said she will deliver her decision on March 30 after the trial conclude on March 8.
Massé told court he worked at three residential schools for the Oblates, a Catholic missionary order that staffed 48 residential schools across Canada – more than any other religious entity. The schools were run by churches but founded, built and funded by the federal government for more than 100 years as a means to assimilate Inuit, Métis and First Nations children into Western society.
An estimated 150,000 Indigenous children were taken from their families and forced into day and residential schools. Many survivors have alleged they were mentally, physically and sexually abused.
But only a handful of priests have been charged and convicted, something Thorson said he is aware of.
“Clergy sexual abuse is a tragedy and we apologize to anyone who has had their safety and inherent dignity offended by an Oblate,” he said in an email to APTN. “We believe that any allegations of this nature should be thoroughly and transparently investigated by secular authorities.
“To that end, our safeguarding policy outlines mandatory reporting requirements and guidelines for cooperation with law enforcement.”
Thorson said OMI did its own investigation in collaboration with the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (monitoring committee) and Massé was immediately removed from public ministry and placed under active monitoring.
“As the legal process progresses, we will continue to cooperate with a goal of supporting those who have brought complaints forward in pursuit of justice and accountability,” Thorson added.
Documents obtained by APTN Investigates found OMI was put in charge of 14 residential schools in Manitoba. There were 139 residential schools in Canada.
Investigates learned 82 Catholic priests and nuns from OMI and the Missionary Oblates Sisters were named as alleged abusers in Manitoba residential schools, resulting in 146 lawsuits.
Court documents reveal the Fort Alexander Indian Residential School housed more than 70 alleged abusers from the 1930s to the 1960s.
Massé, who was charged in June 2022 with the one count of indecent assault, was accused of physical and sexual abuse in five separate lawsuits from 1998 to 2006.
Court documents show the lawsuits were filed in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but abandoned in 2006 when Canada agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit filed by survivors and compensate them via the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement that wrapped up in 2012.
Thorson said none of the alleged victims have reached out to OMI directly where he is available to meet with them and discuss potential support.
“In past cases, this has included financial support to assist with counselling and facilitating access to records,” he said in an email.
“In this particular case, since we have not been approached by the complainant, our involvement has been limited to cooperation with the police investigation so that justice is administered fairly and transparently.”
Thorson said Massé was removed from service to protect minors and vulnerable persons under the order’s Safeguarding Policy.
“(It) prescribes that any Members who have been accused of abuse are removed from active Ministry and monitored to avoid contact with vulnerable persons, in keeping with a Safety Plan, his Superiors and in some cases, supporting members of the community,” Thorson wrote in the email.
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“Since Arthur Masse lives in a supervised residence, I regularly receive updates to ensure his compliance with this plan, as does his local Superior. In this capacity, my work is advised by a Misconduct Advisory Team, which includes a lay person who is a canon lawyer, a lay person who is a registered psychotherapist, a lay woman and an Oblate.”
Thorson said OMI recognizes “the courage that it takes to seek justice and accountability regarding allegations of this nature and our first commitment is always to the victims.”
He added it was “improper and insensitive” of Massé to wear his clerical collar in court.
“I have reached out to him and strongly urged him not repeat this behaviour and apologize to anyone who was hurt or offended,” Thorson said in the email.