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Papal ambassador free from records request in Mission seminary sex abuse suit

B.C. Supreme dismisses application based on jurisdiction, diplomatic immunity
The plaintiff, Mark O’Neill, alleges he was abused as a teenager in the 1970s by three priests. He is one of three former students with pending civil suits against Westminster Abbey, Seminary of the Christ King, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Vancouver, and numerous former priests. Google Street View image.

The Pope’s ambassador in Canada will not be forced to hand over any records of alleged sexual abuse at the seminary school in Mission.

Instead, he will be asked to hand over records.

An application to B.C. Supreme Court was filed in March, for the Apostolic Nuncio to produce various classes of documents related to sexual abuse at the Seminary of Christ the King.

It was dismissed by Court Master John Bilawich on jurisdiction grounds.

The plaintiff seeking the documents, Mark O’Neill, alleges he was abused as a teenager in the 1970s by three priests.

Westminster Abbey and the attached seminary in Mission, B.C. and the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Vancouver are named as institutional defendants, liable for “systematic negligence” for failing to protect students.

RELATED: 3rd former seminary student alleges sexual abuse at Mission priest school in 1970s

O’Neill’s application sought all written correspondence between the institutional defendants and the nuncio regarding allegations or investigations into sexual misconduct at the seminary; speaking notes for various nuncio meetings where sexual abuse was discussed; and correspondence and documents related to the 1997 criminal proceedings against a former vice-rector, Father Harold Vincent Sander.

Sander was tried in a 1997 criminal trial for alleged sex abuse of former seminary students. He was acquitted on six charges. Three former students are now suing the estate of Sander (deceased, 2021) and an array of other defendants in civil suits.

All three cases will go to trial at the same time this fall.

Counsel for O’Neill argued that testimony given in other historic abuse court cases shows that accusations and sensitive documents related to sexual abuse are reported to, and kept by, the Vatican’s embassies for safekeeping.

Discovery so far has revealed several letters relating to allegations of sexual abuse against Sander, including an anonymous 1987 letter written by “former seminarians,” asking for him to be removed from contact with minors and his role as vice-rector of the school.

This letter was not disclosed to police in Sander’s 1997 trial, according to the plaintiff.

The plaintiff’s application asserts that a nuncio has dual roles: one supervisory and administrative, and the other diplomatic.

Only diplomatic archives should be protected from disclosure to the civil justice system, according to the plaintiff’s legal team, arguing the embassy has not filed anything stating the requested documents are.

They further argued immunity is not guaranteed in cases involving death, or personal or bodily injury.

The Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development provided a certificate to the court dated April 19, 2022, asserting the nuncio – and its office archives – enjoy diplomatic immunity.

Bilawich was not convinced the court had jurisdiction. The nuncio and his office are based in Ottawa, nor are they named parties in the suit, he said.

He said orders on parties outside of the province can only be issued if “there is a real and substantial connection between B.C. and the facts on which the proceeding against that person is based.”

The court master was also unconvinced that he could challenge the diplomatic immunity of the archives based on what role the embassy was functioning.

Lawyers for the defendants argued they had produced all relevant documents they are aware of, and that office files held by the pope’s ambassador are outside of their control and ownership.

The plaintiff’s application sought an alternative order, for Westminster Abbey and seminary defendants to sign an authorization form asking the nuncio to produce the records under their control. The defendants said they do not object to this.

“The Apostolic Nuncio is free to decide whether or not to respond to the authorization. Such an order would not offend their diplomatic immunity generally or inviolability of the archive,” Bilawich ruled, adding if any records are produced they will go to the defendants first for review.

RELATED: Mission seminary sex-abuse lawsuit seeks Catholic records, Pope’s ambassador seeks

diplomatic immunity

RELATED: Former Mission seminary student suing dead monk’s estate, Westminster Abbey for alleged rape


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