A Roman Catholic priest’s sexual abuse of an 11-year-old altar boy more than 50 years ago warranted an award of more than half a million dollars in compensation, Ontario’s highest court ruled on Tuesday.
In reaching its decision, the Court of Appeal rejected arguments from the Toronto diocese that the victim’s lawyer had inflamed the jury with closing comments.
However, in a split decision on one part of the appeal, the court set aside the jury’s award of $15,000 in punitive damages, saying the Toronto diocese did nothing wrong in refusing to admit liability until after the trial started.
According to agreed facts, Robert arranged to spend the night in a motel room in Cornwall, Ont., where the priest fondled the boy sexually and performed a sex act on him.
Boy believed incident was his fault
The boy came to believe the incident was his fault and that he was “damned to hell,” court documents show. The result was decades of difficulties with family relationships and alcoholism.
The victim sued the parish in 2014, by which time Robert had died. He sought various damages for mental distress and loss of income, as well as punitive damages.
In May 2017, after hearing expert evidence, the jury awarded the plaintiff general and aggravated damages of $250,000, another $280,000 for loss of income, and punitive damages of $15,000.
The diocese appealed. Among other things, the church argued inflammatory closing comments from the plaintiff’s lawyer led to a miscarriage of justice that required a new trial. Those comments included the lawyer urging jurors to identify with the victim as an 11-year-old and to “do the right thing.”
Appeal court rejected arguments
The Appeal Court rejected the arguments, saying the judge’s instructions to the jury — including about the comments —were fair, and that the damages award was reasonable and supported by the evidence.
“I note that the impugned statements came at the conclusion of a 16-day trial, which was devoid of any allegation of inflammatory comments to the jury,” Justice Mary Lou Benotto wrote for the court. “The jury was not acting out of an impermissible sense of outrage caused by the closing submissions of the respondent’s counsel.”
On the sole issue of $15,000 in punitive damages, Benotto found herself off-side with her two appeal-panel colleagues, Justice Lois Roberts and Chief Justice George Strathy.
Benotto said she would have let the award stand as “symbolic condemnation” of the diocese’s “uniquely egregious” conduct in only admitting liability after the trial started.
“There was specific evidence that (the victim) was suffering physically and mentally during the time that the appellant was denying liability,” Benotto wrote in her dissent.
However, in quashing the punitive damages award, the majority said the church was entitled to deny liability as long as it did.
Exercising its litigation rights could not be characterized as egregious misconduct, Roberts wrote for herself and Strathy.
“In essence, the trial judge created a new and unprecedented category of punitive damages arising out of the timing of the appellant’s admission of liability,” Roberts said. “To create such a category of punitive damages would completely undermine the foundation of the litigation process.”