Cornwall inquiry doesn't have power to make recommendations to church: lawyer

Tara Brautigam, Canadian Press

Published: March 29, 2006

CORNWALL, Ont. -- A public inquiry probing how public institutions responded to historical allegations of child sexual abuse does not have the authority to issue recommendations to the Catholic Church, a lawyer for the local diocese said Tuesday.

The Alexandria-Cornwall Roman Catholic Diocese doesn't want to be considered a "public institution" as is spelled out in the terms of reference established for the inquiry last year by the Ontario government, said lawyer David Sherriff-Scott.

Considering the diocese a public institution just because it provides services to the poor and downtrodden would be unfair and would distract the inquiry from its true mandate, Sherriff-Scott told Commissioner Normand Glaude.

"If I interpreted every charitable organization that held itself out in the public domain as providing services on behalf of the public - Big Brothers, Big Sisters, athletic organizations, health charities - every one of them would be, on that argument, a public institution," he argued.

"I don't think that's right."

The inquiry is investigating the handling of long-standing allegations of child sexual abuse that have left a cloud over this blue-collar eastern Ontario city for decades.

The diocese wants to be considered a community sector organization - a classification that would exclude it from the inquiry's mandate, which the terms of reference define as "examining the response of the justice system and other public institutions to the allegations."

The diocese, which sought and received standing at the inquiry, would continue to participate in the proceedings should Glaude agree with Sherriff-Scott's argument. It would not, however, be subject to any of the inquiry's recommendations.

Victims of the alleged abuse say they fear the inquiry would be derailed were Glaude to rule in favour of the diocese, and that such a decision would deny residents the healing they have sought for nearly half a century.

On Wednesday, the inquiry will debate a motion to exclude the testimony of alleged victims, another move critics say would severely hamper the entire proceeding.

Glaude said the people of Cornwall might believe the church is trying to hide something were it to be excluded from the inquiry's purview.

"If you hold yourself out to be in the public domain on matters such as the care of people, how can you then turn around and say, 'Nope, I'll draw back and draw the corporate veil and I'm just a sole corporation here?"'Glaude asked.

"Some might say the church is trying to hide."

Sherriff-Scott was undaunted, saying the court of public opinion should not have any place within the inquiry's framework.

"I can't answer for what people say on the streets," he said.

"I don't want to be cheeky. My submission is you wouldn't have jurisdiction to make recommendations to the diocese."

Outside the hearing room, Sherriff-Scott said the church was not seeking to halt its participation in the inquiry nor thwart its objectives.

"The diocese is not hiding from anything," he said. "We are here to participate."

Allan Manson, a lawyer for the Citizens for Community Renewal, said the inquiry would be less than thorough if it did not treat the diocese as a public institution.

"It plays a major role in the life of the public community and it did or should've responded to historical allegations of abuse," Manson said.

"Those two characteristics make it a public institution for the purpose of this mandate."

For decades, Cornwall has been at the centre of lingering stories about a purported underground network of pedophiles that existed since the late 1950s and allegedly involved prominent members of this city's Roman Catholic clergy.

Police laid 114 charges against 15 men in the 1990s after a sweeping investigation known as Project Truth, netting suspects including a doctor, a lawyer and three priests.

In the end, only five cases ever made it to court, resulting in four acquittals and one man pleading guilty.

Police say they never found any evidence of a pedophile ring.

 The Canadian Press 2006