The name of a prominent Vatican cardinal, who is regarded as a potential successor to Pope Francis, appears on a list made public as part of a new class action against the Quebec diocese, Radio-Canada’s investigative program Enquête has found.
Cardinal Marc Ouellet, who was the archbishop of Quebec when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was taking place, is among some 88 members of the clergy who are facing allegations of sexual assault. It’s the first time Ouellet’s name appears in the legal proceedings.
The civil lawsuit represents more than 100 victims who were allegedly sexually assaulted, most of them as minors, by priests and other staff working for the diocese since 1940.
Most of the assaults allegedly took place in the ’50s and ’60s, according to the class action documents.
Ouellet is by far the most prominent person among those listed in the class action, and the one with the highest-ranking position in the Catholic Church. The cardinal is not facing any criminal accusations.
His alleged victim, who is identified as “F” in the documents, was doing an internship as a pastoral agent from 2008 to 2010 when she says the assaults occurred. She says they took place during public events.
“He grabbed me and then … his hands on my back, they went down pretty low,” said the complainant, who shared her version of what happened to Radio-Canada’s Enquête team last spring.
“Quite intrusive for, let’s say for someone who is my superior, who is the archbishop of Quebec.”
During that encounter, the cardinal allegedly told her it’s the second time they had seen each other that week and he might as well kiss her again, since there is no harm in treating himself a little.
“That made me very uncomfortable, especially the word ‘treating’ himself. As if I was his treat,” she said.
The allegations the woman shared with Enquête are the same ones found in the lawsuit documents.
On different occasions, Ouellet allegedly held the woman against his body, massaged her shoulders or vigorously caressed her back “down to the spot where the buttocks start,” each time making her feel very uncomfortable.
“I felt chased after. It became more and more invasive, more and more intense to the point where I stopped attending events. I tried avoiding being in his presence as much as possible,” she said.
In an email to Radio-Canada, the Quebec archdiocese said that it is aware of the allegations against Ouellet, but declined to issue any further comments.
At the time of the alleged assaults, Ouellet was the archbishop and the head of the diocese. He had the final say in who was hired as a pastoral agent, according to Alain Arseneault, the lawyer representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
“You have at that time a young woman in her mid-20s versus a powerful man in a position of authority, known worldwide at the time, who was maybe 60,” he said. “Like most victims, she froze.”
When “F” spoke about her uneasiness with those around her, she was told the cardinal is a warm man and that she wasn’t the only woman who faced this type of “problem with him,” the class action reads.
A priest who was active in the diocese at the time told Enquête there were rumours circulating about the cardinal’s behaviour.
The priest, who asked to remain anonymous, was one of the clergy members to whom the young woman shared what happened with the cardinal. He said they believed her allegations.
“We couldn’t get over it. He arrived like a sheriff who was coming to bring order to the diocese of Quebec, he was sent from Rome.” he said. “For him to have inappropriate behaviours with women, we found that really strange on his part.”
Although the allegations against Ouellet seem less serious physically than other cases cited in the class action, the impact on the victim is nevertheless just as important, said Arsenault.
“It’s hard to imagine that someone with his intelligence, in his position, was unaware of what he was doing and the consequences it could have,” he said.
Ouellet was called back to Rome and promoted as prefect for the Dicastery of Bishops, the Vatican’s department that is responsible for selecting new bishops, in 2010.
“F” said once Ouellet left and was replaced by Gérald Cyprien Lacroix, the current archbishop for Quebec, things changed significantly.
“He was a lot more adjusted. If there was physical contact, it was a simple handshake,” she said.
A complaint made to the Vatican
According to the lawsuit, the woman decided to share what happened to her with the committee in charge of reviewing sexual allegations within the diocese of Quebec 10 years later, after a troubling encounter with another priest.
She said she went to see the committee and told them, “I don’t know if I was a victim, but this is my story.”
“I felt the need to tell [them] everything that I had gone through that was inappropriate since starting as a pastoral agent.”
She said members of the committee told her both cases were cases of sexual misconduct, and allegedly encouraged her to file a complaint.
It’s only then that the committee learned one of the priests was Cardinal Ouellet, as the woman had not shared the men’s names beforehand.
The complaint against Ouellet was filed directly to the Vatican in 2021. It was assigned to priest Jacques Servais, a theologian tasked with looking into the matter.
A virtual meeting was arranged between the victim and the Vatican, but one year-and-a-half later the woman said she still hasn’t been informed of the conclusion of the investigation.