Top court won't hear appeal sought by church

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Barb Sweet
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The Supreme Court of Canada has refused to hear an appeal of a decision won by the insurer of the Roman Catholic Episcopal Corp. of St. John's in a battle over who pays for compensating people who claim they were sexually abused by priests.
Thursday, the country's top court dismissed the Episcopal Corp.'s request for leave to appeal, awarding court costs to Guardian Insurance Co. of Canada.

"Our position is we always felt the (Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador) Court of Appeal decision was right and proper and that it allows the determination of whether or not the Episcopal Corp. - prior to obtaining the policy of insurance from our clients - knew about the abuses carried out by members of the clergy and in particular James Hickey," said St. John's lawyer Philip Buckingham, who represents Guardian.

The fight about who pays stretches back to 1989 when a minor filed a claim against the Episcopal Corp. related to allegations of sexual abuse by James Hickey, a priest in the St. John's diocese, between 1982-88.

In 1989, Hickey (who died in 1992) pleaded guilty to 20 charges of sexual assault, gross indecency and indecent assault involving teenage boys.

The insurance company initially said it wasn't liable in this case, arguing the policy was voided by the Episcopal Corp.'s failure to disclose knowledge of James Hickey's history of sexual abuse.

But Guardian was subject to a 1992 consent order and continued coverage until 2009 when it refused to pay an abuse settlement, claiming new evidence.

At the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador in 2011, Guardian claimed church leaders were aware prior to 1980 of allegations against Father James Hickey and said the church was not acting in good faith in dealing with subsequent civil suits.

The Supreme Court sided with the Episcopal Corp. of St. John's in ordering the insurer to honour its policy based on the 1992 order to do so.

But in 2013, the Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court of Appeal ruled in favour of Guardian.

A trial to determine what church officials knew about the abuse and when they knew it will get underway in 2015.

Greg Stack, who represents numerous victims, said his firm is happy with Thursday's decision because it gave weight to the new evidence brought forward through legal discoveries.

The decision makes little difference for the victims., as Stack said he remains perplexed why the Episcopal Corp. has been slow to settle cases that stretch back 25 years.

Those few that have been settled in the last two years were done out of the financial desperation of victims who took lowball offers from the church, he said.

"The church has had no appetite to ever address these fully," Stack said.

"The pattern is there and there worldwide."

One exception, he said, was a settlement in Boston which sped to conclusion at the urging of a then new archbishop.

In 2003, The Associated Press reported the Boston Archdiocese agreed to pay $85 million to 552 people.

 

Organizations: Episcopal, Supreme Court, The Associated Press Boston Archdiocese

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, St. John's, Greg Boston

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