Deliver us, courts, from every evil: Christensen v Roman Catholic Archbishop of Québec
On October 29th, the Supreme Court of Canada (“SCC”) allowed the appeal of a controversial civil case (Christensen v Roman Catholic Archbishop of Québec,  2 SCR 694) to be remanded to the Quebec Superior Court (“QSC”) for assessment. The court will hear the story that a victim thought she would never have the chance to tell. It involves a 25-year-old sexual assault charge, a priest who plead guilty to the criminal charges and is now serving time for them, and a woman who felt she did not know the true extent of her injuries until she sought therapy for emotional problems many years later.
The main issue before the court was at what point the prescriptive period (known under the common law system as a Statute of Limitations) began to run. The general civil period of prescription in Quebec is three years from the date of impugned action. Christensen did not file a civil claim for redress until 2006, 25 years after the assaults took place. The respondents (the Church) filed motions to dismiss the action on the ground that it was prescribed; the QSC granted their motions and dismissed the action. A majority of the Quebec Court of Appeal (“QCA”) affirmed the judgment.
During her childhood, the appellant attended the Sacred Heart parish in Quebec City. In 1979, when she was six, she met the respondent – the parish priest, Paul-Henri Lachance. Apparently in search of a father figure, she visited Lachance in his office at the rectory up to once a week, and he became her friend and confidant.
At some point in the first year of their relationship, the priest began to touch the young girl inappropriately. He would kneel before her and the touching lasted several minutes each time. During that period, the appellant’s mother sought the help of a child psychiatrist for behavioral problems. This went on for two years.
At some point in 1981, the priest moved to more aggressive sexual conduct by taking the appellant to his bedroom, removing her clothes and assaulting her further. The appellant rushed home immediately after this incident to tell her mother what happened, which leads to them visiting the rectory. Rev. Lachance is absent, but they speak with another priest, who recommends they visit the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Quebec. They are received by representatives of the respondent Archbishop, who tells the family that the diocese will handle the case, and not to disclose any of the events to the police or the public. The Archbishop assigns Lachance to another parish.
The appellant’s teenage years and later life are marred by problems with her self-esteem and sexuality. She experiences panic attacks from sexual contact, and consults a psychologist. One day, when she was helping her husband’s six-year-old daughter from another marriage in the bathroom, she became overwhelmed with her daughter’s vulnerability at such a tender age. Angered, she finally defies the advice of the parish and files a complaint against Lachance for indecent assault against a female person. He pled guilty to the offense.
A year later, the appellant took steps to institute an action in tort against the respondents.
The Trial Judgment
At trial, the judge explained the principles that govern the consideration to dismiss a motion barred through extinctive prescription. Citing the SCC’s decision in Gauthier v Beaumont,  2 SCR 3, the trial judge held that if the appellant was unable to act because of fear, that psychological state of fear must have been caused by the defendant’s action, and must persist during the entire period the defendant did not act. He concluded that the facts did not support impossibility to action on part of the plaintiff, and found the action had been barred since 1983, three years after the final incident of indecent touching.
A majority of the QCA affirmed the judgment of the QSC, but for different reasons.
The appellant was not unable to be represented by others, argues the judgment. There is nothing in the record to indicate that the appellant’s mother was barred from action simply because the Diocese asked her not to go to the police.
Furthermore, the QCA argued, the appellant confused the starting point of prescription with the suspension of the limitation. Prescription may be suspended when the victim is unable to make the causal link between her injuries and the fault of the person who injured her.
The decision said that given that the existence of the parents’ knowledge about the priest’s actions and their daughter’s subsequent psychological impairment, the parents make a conscientious choice not to challenge ecclesiastical authority and not to pursue a civil remedy.
The Dissent (Endorsed in the SCC’s Ruling)
Chamberland J.A. did not agree with his colleagues, and his dissenting judgment formed the basis of the SCC’s decision.
Although the appellant’s parents knew about the harm, and chose to remain silent, Chamberland J.A. maintained the most important aspect of this case was not whether the prescriptive limitation could be suspended, but rather when it should be said to begin running.
He cited the SCC’s decision in M(K) v M(H),  3 SCR 6 (an incest case) where La Forest J. argued that in order for a limitation period to begin to run, it is necessary that the plaintiff be aware of his injuries and their probable causes.
In this case, the appellant argues she became aware of the magnitude of what happened when she was 6-8 years old, and its potential connection to persistent psychological injuries, during the summer of 2006 when she sought therapy.
On these facts, the cause of action had not crystallized until the summer of 2006. The action is therefore not barred by extinctive prescription.
Moreover, Chamerland J.A. advised caution in the dismissal of claims held to be stale in Quebec, which has the shortest statute of limitations period for civil claims in Canada.
Victim’s rights groups assert that Quebec’s three-year rule is grossly unfair. While a statute of limitations is needed to reduce the uncertainty on potential defendants, some argue that three years is not long enough for victims of assault to fairly assess the psychological damage that has been done to them. Without opening the doors to a flood of potential litigants, the court can, and hopefully will, do better in delivering justice for these vulnerable people.