An independent review looking into how the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate handled historical allegations of sexual abuse by a now-retired priest who lived in the Arctic for three decades is being met with both hope and skepticism by Inuit in Nunavut and those who have been observing his case.
“I’m glad this is going to be dealt with,” said Steve Mapsalak from his home in Naujaat, a hamlet in Nunavut. “It’s an ongoing thing and taking too long for me.”
He said Johannes Rivoire sexually abused him when he was 13 years old in Naujaat.
Now 66, Mapsalak said he has been waiting a long time for the Catholic Church to take some responsibility — not only for what he said he’s experienced as a victim of Rivoire, but for what others have gone through as well. “We are not just saying that we are victims. It happened,” he said.
Former Quebec Superior Court justice André Denis has been appointed by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, OMI Lacombe Canada and the Oblates of the Province of France to lead the Oblate Safeguarding Commission.
A statement issued earlier this month called the commission “an independent review of historical allegations of sexual abuse against Johannes Rivoire in present-day Nunavut.”
In the same statement, Denis said, “I appreciate the opportunity to lead this commission and expect that my findings will contribute to greater understanding of this history, while positioning the Oblates to set a higher standard of accountability and safety.”
Inuit delegation travelled to France
Mapsalak and three others filed complaints against Rivoire with the police in 1998, and he was charged by the Nunavut RCMP, but by then he had returned in France.
A Canadian warrant was issued for Rivoire’s arrest in 1998, but criminal charges related to the sexual abuse of children were stayed in 2017 by the Public Prosecution Service of Canada. It said too much time had passed since the alleged events occurred, and they were no longer in the interest of the public.
In September 2021, Rivoire, who has been in France since 1993, was charged again — this time with one count of indecent assault of a girl in Arviat and Whale Cove between 1974 and 1979. That arrest warrant remains active. Then, in February 2022, he was charged with sexually assaulting a female child between 1974 and 1979.
Rivoire, who was ordained in France in 1958 and lives in Lyon, France, has denied any wrongdoing. His first posting as a Catholic priest was in Igloolik, Nunavut, from 1960-65 — followed by Repulse Bay (now Naujaat) from 1965-74, and Eskimo Point, now Arviat, from 1974-93.
An extradition request was made to France by the federal Department of Justice on behalf of the Public Prosecution Service of Canada.
While France has an extradition treaty with Canada, it does not typically extradite its citizens to other countries, and Rivoire doesn’t legally have to return to Canada to face charges.
Last September, Mapsalak, along with a delegation of Inuit, travelled to Paris to implore French officials to grant Canada’s extradition request so that Rivoire can face the sexual assault charges here.
“There are people suffering. We are suffering,” Mapsalak said.
His group was also in France to raise public awareness in the French media about allegations against Rivoire as a way to aid them in their cause. But on Oct. 14, France denied the extradition request.
‘Transparency and accountability’
Rev. Ken Thorson, head of the OMI Lacombe Province in Ottawa, said Denis’s commission will have full access to records on Rivoire, including allegations made against him in both Canada and France.
“We want to better understand how past allegations of abuse were addressed within the community,” he said in an interview with CBC News.
Thorson said Denis was chosen to lead the commission because of his experience presiding over a trial in 2008-09 involving the federal Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act, as well as for his work in 2020 examining how the Archdiocese of Montreal and others in Quebec handled allegations of sexual abuse of minors.
He said the former judge will also identify improvements in Oblate policies and governance that need to be changed to better safeguard minors.
“We want to ensure a high level of transparency and accountability,” Thorson said.
Retired priest in elder-care facility
Lieve Halsberghe, an advocate for people who have been sexually abused by the clergy in Belgium, said she doesn’t trust the process.
“Another commission, wow. I mean, they haven’t learned because they keep on repeating the same blah, blah, blah. And this is not a new thing. It’s a very old technique that they use.”
Halsberghe travelled to France with the Inuit delegation last fall to pressure the government to extradite Rivoire to Canada.
“They have to stall time, we’re just waiting for Rivoire to die,” she said of the former priest, who is in his early 90s and currently living in a privately run elder-care centre in France, according to Thorson.
“Rivoire disappeared in the middle of the night with just a backpack,” Tanya Tungilik told a news conference in Paris last fall. Her late father, Marius Tungilik, also filed a sexual assault complaint against Rivoire with the RCMP in Nunavut.
Instead of a review, Halsberghe said she wants Rivoire to face justice. “We will let him defend himself in a court of law, you know, at the same standard of every other citizen. He’s also a Canadian citizen.”
Inuit group hopes review will bring peace
Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of BishopAccountability.org in Boston, told CBC News that over the last 20 years, she’s seen an increase in independent reviews commissioned by the church.
“The whole purpose of these reviews — and I’m going to sound a little cynical here — is to quell public outrage. It’s a recognition by the church that they have received terrible publicity, that there is substantial evidence that [a] coverup happened and that they enabled the sexual abuse of children,” she said.
Thorson said he understands the skepticism that people may have, saying he’s had conversations with Indigenous people, church leaders, survivors and their families, along with Catholics, about the many mistakes that were made in the church’s history.
“I really have come to believe that there’s no reconciliation without trust, and there’s no healing possible. And so I’m doing what we’re able to do right now — understanding that not everybody is going to be trusting or supportive of us, and yet it’s what we can do right now.”
Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, an organization that represents Inuit in Canada, issued a statement that says it is “looking forward to engaging with Justice Denis and the Oblates to achieve a greater understanding of the decisions that contributed to the unconscionable situation of an accused criminal being allowed to evade justice.”
The group said it hopes the review will bring a small measure of peace to victims through an assurance that such actions aren’t repeated.
“I’m very hopeful,” Steve Mapsalak said.
Thorson is encouraging anyone who is willing and able to contribute to the commission to email former justice Denis directly at email@example.com.
His final report is expected to be delivered in English, French and Inuktitut by April 1, 2024.