By Alice RITCHIE
Pope Francis has ruled out a formal church investigation into a sexual assault claim against Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet after a preliminary inquiry found no basis for one, the Vatican said Thursday.
Ouellet, himself once considered a strong candidate to be pope, was named in court documents this week relating to a class action suit targeting more than 80 members of the clergy in the archdiocese of Quebec.
The 78-year-old is accused of abusing a female intern, identified only as “F”, from 2008 to 2010, when he was archbishop of Quebec.
In the Vatican’s first public response to the civil suit, spokesman Matteo Bruni said a “preliminary investigation” already ordered by Pope Francis had found there were “no elements to initiate a trial”.
He said the pontiff again consulted the author of that probe, a Father Jacques Servais, and was told again that there were no grounds for opening a formal investigation.
“Following further relevant consultations, Pope Francis declares that there are insufficient elements to open a canonical investigation for sexual assault by Cardinal Ouellet against person F,” the statement said.
– ‘Chased after’ –
Ouellet is a prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, one of the most important functions within the Curia, the government of the Vatican.
The claims against him in the civil suit, which the Quebec supreme court ruled could go ahead in May, are among the testimonies of 101 people who say they were sexually assaulted by members of the clergy and church staff from 1940 to today.
They emerged just weeks after Pope Francis visited Canada, where he apologised for the decades-long abuse of Indigenous children in Catholic-run residential schools.
So far, the cardinal is not facing criminal charges.
Ouellet’s accuser claims the cardinal assaulted her multiple times — kissing her, “forcefully” massaging her shoulders, and once sliding his hand along her back to her buttocks.
She says she had the feeling of being “chased after”, according to the documents. When the woman tried to raise the issue, she was told she was not the only woman to have such a “problem” with Ouellet, documents show.
It was not until 2020 that F., who says she was also sexually abused by another cleric, spoke to the Quebec church’s sex abuse advisory committee.
It recommended she write to the pope, who in 2021 responded by nominating Servais to look into the case. She had not yet been told of his conclusions.
According to Thursday’s Vatican statement, Servais said he had interviewed the woman via Zoom in the presence of a member of the committee.
He was quoted as saying that neither in her report to the pope, nor in the testimony he heard, “did this person make an accusation that would provide material for such an investigation”.
In February, Ouellet opened a Vatican symposium on the priesthood by apologising for “unworthy” clergy and the cover-up of child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy, before an audience that included Pope Francis.
“We are all torn and humbled by these crucial questions that every day question us as members of the Church,” Ouellet said at the time.
He said the symposium was an opportunity to express regret and ask victims for forgiveness, after their lives were “destroyed by abusive and criminal behaviour” that was hidden or treated lightly to protect the institution and the perpetrators.
Since becoming pope in 2013, Francis has sought to tackle the decades-long sexual abuse scandals, although many activists against paedophilia insist much more needs to be done.
— Agence France-Presse VIDEO