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Jesuits compensate abuse victims


Dina O'Meara, Windspeaker Staff Writer, Cape Croker Ontario







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Four years after stories of sexual and physical abuse by a trusted Jesuit priest rocked this community, 15 victims have signed a compensation package with the Jesuit Fathers of Canada.

The packages includes $500,000 over three years to be spent on counselling services, $25,000 compensation per claimant and up to $4,000 each for educational or vocational upgrading.

But there are more victims in the Cape Croker and Saugeen First Nations who chose not to sign the Reconciliation Agreement, raising concerns that they will be left out of any future compensation. Members of the First Nations also feel left out of a process which purports to promote healing within the community.

"It's a very difficult thing to deal with. In my own estimation, the problem is far from being solved," said Chief Ralph Akewenzi.

Initially chief and council were consulted by the Jesuit Fathers on compensation and healing programs, said Akewenzi. But the process was then taken to an individual level with 15 community members signing the agreement. Other members who had been abused by the priest did not take part, and the lack of community involvement in establishing programs aimed at helping its members heal left at least Akewenzi dissatisfied.

"We, ourselves, have to deal with the impact of the abuse on a community level, as a community," said Akewenzi. "We can't go on with the other things in life, we've been so involved in this process. Until this is resolved, you can't discuss finer points, like self-government."

Father George Epoch was a parish priest at St. Mary's Church in Cape Croker from 1972 to 1983.

In 1990, the first account of abuse by Epoch surfaced, almost four years after the priest's death by heart attack. In August 1992, Jesuit Provincial Superior Father Eric Maclean publicly apologized for the abusive acts of Epoch at a meeting in Cape Croker, and started consultations on a reconciliation package.

"I come to you in sorrow, in regret and in humility, acknowledging the wrong that the late Father Epoch did to you, expressing my sorrow and apologizing on my own behalf and that of all Canadian Jesuits for his actions and for the devastating consequences those actions have had in your lives and in the lives of you family and your community," read part of Maclean's statement.

The Jesuit Fathers initiated community meetings and established several healing centres in Cape Croker, as well as providing funds for counselling and education, for a total of approximately $1.9 million. But a lack of consensus on how to proceed with compensation prompted the Catholic organization to seek individual agreements, said a Jesuit spokesperson.

"The meetings broke down because there was no coming together of what people felt needed to be addressed," said Father Jack Costello. "We were spending a lot of money with no sense of where it was going, no sense of completion."

Costello argues the individual agreements were the quickest vehicles for compensation and healing. The primary victims of Epoch's abuse could not wait for a consensus resolution which seemed to be slipping further away.

The agreement has provision to compensate up to 40 claimants, who are required to waive the right to enter civil suit against the Jesuits on signing the documents. To date 15 claimants have signed the reconciliation agreement, out of an estimated 25 people who have spoken out about being abused.

There may be more members of Cape Croker who suffered physical and sexual abuse at the hands of Epoch who do not want to go public, Costello acknowledged.

The rift created between the church and the community will take a long time to heal, said Costello.

"We have a long way to go to achieve trust, let alone affection in the community. I'm not sure how that will happen," said Costello.

The position the Jesuits are assuming now is to allow the community to approach them on how and if that breach can be repaired.

"I don't think it's easy to know whether it's approriate for the Jesuits to take the initiative beyond what we've done," he said. "We're not clear on what further action is appropriate because it is not clear that people in the community want us to take any direction now."