A Quebec Superior Court judge cleared a class action lawsuit against a Catholic religious group once advertised for its ability to foster vocations, paving the way for people who claim to have been physically, spiritually or psychologically abused within the organization to join the lawsuit.
Judge Alicia Soldevila ruled in favor of a class action lawsuit involving the Marie-Jeunesse Family, (Mary’s Youth Family), which was founded in the 1980s.
Pascal Perron, member of the group for 17 years, will represent those who join the class action. He left the religious community in 2014, at the age of 36, after having lived in the group’s community houses in Quebec and on Reunion Island, a French department in the Indian Ocean.
Perron criticizes the group and its leaders for having put in place rules “so strict and rigorous” that they had the effect of “destroying the identity of the individuals who were part of it”, preventing their development, and to make “their reintegration into civil society extremely difficult.
He also claimed to be a victim of spiritual abuse, which an expert defined as the use of a person’s spiritual need “for the purpose of manipulating and controlling them for evil purposes,” explained the decision. Soldevila. In Perron’s case, the abuse resulted in “a loss of confidence,” the judge wrote.
Father Réal Lavoie, identified as the founder of the group and who was ordained in 2005, was mentioned several times in the Soldevila decision of September 13. The priest is accused of having “developed and implemented a closed system or sectarian scheme which had the effect of making members of the group completely vulnerable and enslaved to its leaders and to the sect,” he said. .
In his 39-page judgment, Soldevila concluded that it is inappropriate to assess the rules regarding membership in a religious community. The ruling, however, determined that a future trial will examine whether there was a system “which deprived the complainant of his freedom to freely choose to join the community”, held him against his will for 17 years and failed to provided assistance for his reintegration into civilian life. company.
Soldevila also limited participation in the class action to “internal members” of the religious group who had lived in community houses in Quebec since 1986. Internal members who joined the community in Reunion, Belgium or Tahiti, where the congregation had members. houses until December 2017, are not eligible to join the class action lawsuit.
The congregation also has external members who live outside of community houses. A third category of members are the priests who come under “competent ecclesiastical authority”, writes the judge, and are therefore outside the community.
The group currently has 21 members living at its home in Sherbrooke, explained Father Jean-François Pouliot, spokesperson for the congregation. However, an unknown number of members live outside the community, he said.
During the hearings in February to obtain the authorization of the class action, it was mentioned that since its founding, Famille Marie-Jeunesse has counted “more than a hundred members” who have pronounced “definitive commitments”, particularly in Quebec. and in Belgium.
In February 2019, an unknown number of members with “temporary or definitive commitments”, whose departures from the congregation “were perhaps more painful”, were invited by the Archdiocese of Sherbrooke for “support and mediation “.
In 2002, the Archdiocese recognized the group as a public association of the faithful of a “new community type” and, due to this decision, the Archdiocese was appointed as the plaintiff in the case. The court will have to decide whether the archdiocesan authorities took “reasonable steps to put an end to the abuses” that the victims reported to them or if they “have knowingly and consciously chosen to ignore the said abuses”, according to the judgment.
“I am very satisfied with the judgment,” said Jean-Daniel Quessy, Perron’s lawyer. “The courts send a strong message. That the victims in the Marie-Jeunesse case have a defensible case and that they are right to go ahead.
Regarding Soldevila’s determination on which rules religious groups can adopt, Quessy said it was not his intention to “challenge the group’s rules.”
“Rather, we look at it from the perspective of spiritual violence. How are the rules applied and lived on a daily basis? We believe the rules have caused damage and are wrong. For us, that’s abuse, ”Quessy said.
Eliane Thibault, spokesperson for the archdiocese, declared that “although the court favorably accepts the plaintiffs’ request at this stage of the procedure, the Archdiocese of Sherbrooke intends to maintain its efforts to collaborate with justice and ensure its defense in the next stages of the case. “
“Abuse of all kinds is unacceptable,” she said. “Through this judicial process, we hope that the alleged victims can find peace and that these people can live lives that meet their expectations. “
The religious organization continued to review the decision and was considering what action to take, Father Pouliot said.
Gloutnay is a member of the staff of Présence info, Montreal.
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