Diocese, Scouts Canada acknowledge legal responsibility for harm caused by former priest who sexually abused dozens of Indigenous boys
A class-action lawsuit against Ralph Rowe, Scouts Canada, and the Anglican synod of the diocese of Keewatin on behalf of Indigenous youth who allege they were sexually abused by Rowe has moved to mediation.
Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice in March 2021 endorsed a consent judgement in which Scouts Canada and the diocese accepted the vicarious liability of the harm done by Rowe. This means the diocese accepted the legal responsibility it bore as his employers for that harm, as did Scouts Canada as a party for whom he worked as a volunteer.
Rowe, who was a fly-in Anglican priest to northern Ontario communities as well as a scoutmaster with the Boy Scouts of Canada in the 1970s and ‘80s, pleaded guilty in 1994 to 39 counts of indecent assault involving 19 boys and was sentenced to six years in prison under a plea agreement, but was released on parole after serving four and a half years. He was convicted of additional crimes in the early 2000s, bringing the total convictions to nearly 60. Survivors Rowe, a 2015 documentary film, estimates Rowe abused as many as 500 boys.
The lawsuit, filed in May 2017, claimed $100 million in damages for “battery, assault, negligence, breach of fiduciary duty, and vicarious liability” and punitive damages of $10 million. The amount of damages survivors can claim after liability is established in such cases must be determined by the court or by settlement, and a hearing to establish a claims process has been set for next September.
A spokesperson for Koskie Minsky, the law firm representing the plaintiffs, however, confirmed to the Journal that the parties had moved to mediation.
“With the assistance of a neutral mediator, we are currently in confidential discussions with the defendants to determine whether the issues can be resolved prior to the Court hearing,” the spokesperson said.
“We remain committed to securing a just outcome for the brave survivors of abuse committed by Ralph Rowe,” the spokesperson added, but declined further comment, citing the confidential nature of the discussions.
The diocese of Keewatin, where Rowe’s abuse occurred, currently exists only as a corporate entity with four members. One is Karen Webb, chancellor of the ecclesiastical province of Rupert’s Land, vice chancellor of the diocese of Brandon and a practicing lawyer with a background in child protection and family law. Webb is also a member of the Anglican Journal’s editorial board.
In an interview with the Journal, Webb emphasized that the March 2021 ruling was a consent order, meaning the plaintiff, synod of the diocese of Keewatin and Scouts Canada all consented to the judgement.“That means that all three are saying ‘Yes, we’re agreeing that the [diocese of] Keewatin and Scouts are vicariously liable’” for Rowe’s abuse, Webb said. “There’s no fight here.”
Webb said she couldn’t speculate on what the total size of the eventual payouts might be.
The Anglican Journal reached out to the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, where much of Rowe’s abuse took place, in an attempt to contact survivors as well as former grand chief Alvin Fiddler, who has asked the Anglican Church of Canada to apologize for harm caused by Rowe. These efforts were unsuccessful.
In January 2017, Archdeacon Michael Thompson, then general secretary of General Synod, released a statement on Rowe in which he acknowledged that past actions of the Anglican Church of Canada had “helped to create a legacy of brokenness in First Nations communities” and said the church was willing to renew its commitment to dialogue to act on its responsibilities.
Thompson noted that in 2014, the ministry of the diocese of Keewatin ended. Replacing it was the Indigenous Spiritual Ministry of Mishamikoweesh led by Bishop Lydia Mamakwa. Thompson said Archbishop Fred Hiltz, then primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, intended to continue a process of engagement with Mamakwa “to renew a way forward that will lead to a formal national apology to the victims of Ralph Rowe and their communities.”
In the wake of Thompson’s statement, Fiddler said the church needed to not just apologize but provide resources for long-term healing. Then Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett (whose husband, Peter O’Brian, produced Survivors Rowe) also publicly spoke about the importance of an apology from the Anglican Church of Canada.
Less than five months after Thompson’s statement, however, survivors filed their class-action lawsuit, and six years later, the church has not yet issued a formal apology.
Joseph Vecsi, communications director for the Anglican Church of Canada, spoke to the Journal for this article on behalf of General Synod.
“The class action suit on this matter began in May 2017 and until the matter is before the courts and resolved, we cannot comment publicly,” Vecsi said.
Tanya Talaga, an Ojibwe journalist who covered Rowe as a reporter for the Toronto Star and wrote about his crimes in her book All Our Relations, has detailed the devastating impact Rowe’s abuse had on Indigenous communities now plagued with drug and alcohol addiction and high suicide rates. Talaga, currently a Globe and Mail columnist, told the Journal the Anglican Church of Canada needs to do more to support communities still suffering intergenerational trauma from Rowe’s actions.
“I think the Anglican Church has to go a lot farther in apologizing to the generations of victims of Ralph Rowe,” Talaga said.
“What is also needed is support with healing, and understanding and acknowledgement of how widespread his crimes have been, and [of] the fact that children are still being injured to this day due to the legacy of abuse that Ralph Rowe perpetrated on our people … Everyone associated with the hierarchy of the Anglican Church should apologize for Ralph Rowe and spend time making amends.”
Any apology from the church, Talaga said, should be presented where people affected by Rowe’s crimes live.
In his 2017 statement, Thompson said “Ralph Rowe’s abuse was massive in its scope and horrendous in its impact, and we owe a debt of gratitude to those who with great courage have borne witness to that abuse.”
The church, he added, had undertaken a number of measures intended to address the consequences of Rowe’s crimes, including a mediation process with the people of Wunnumin Lake First Nation, one of the communities most affected; funding several community projects with money from the church’s Healing Fund; and supporting suicide prevention workers in Indigenous communities.