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Settlements end $100M class action lawsuit by alleged Manitoulin Island abuse survivors

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A $100 million class action lawsuit launched on behalf of alleged victims of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy on Manitoulin Island has been abandoned after the victims reached individual settlements with the church.

All of the 29 alleged victims are from Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory and attended Holy Cross Mission, run by the Jesuit Fathers of Upper Canada.

The suit was launched in 2015 and named several defendants, including the Roman Catholic Episcopal Corporation of the Diocese of Sault Ste. Marie, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Sault Ste. Marie, the Estate of Father George Epoch and the Estate of Brother O’Meare.

"The action was brought on behalf of all persons who were abused as children by clergy or staff of the Holy Cross Mission in Wiikwemkoong (and) all parents, spouses, children and siblings of the abused persons," court documents said.

Two alleged victims – one of Father George Epoch and the other of Brother O’Meare – filed the suit and were joined by others.

O’Meare committed the sex abuse when he worked in Wiikwemkoong between 1950 and 1960, while Epoch’s crimes took place when he worked there from 1959 to 1963, 1969 to 1971 and 1983 to 1986 the suit alleges.

A third member of the clergy – a "Brother Hinton" – was also named as someone who abused children from 1963 until 1970. His whereabouts – and whether he is still alive – is unknown, the court documents said.

Indigenous crisis support: Where to find help

Four years after the class action was launched, officials approached lawyers for the Jesuits.

"Chief Duke Peltier and senior policy analyst Sandra Wabegijig of the Wiikwemkoong Unceded First Nation approached the counsel for the Jesuit Fathers of Upper Canada and asked that the legal process be resolved by an informal process," the court documents said.

The goal was to find a process that would still be fair but wouldn’t "re-traumatize" the alleged victims.

"Discussions followed with the Merchant Law Group with the leaders of the Wiikwemkoong community, and a consensus emerged that there should be a more informal process," the transcript said.

"It was agreed that compensation would be negotiated in accordance with the awards made in the federal Day School Settlement, which was a class action similar to the Indian Residential Schools Class Action."

All 29 people have since settled their claims, but "the terms of the individual settlements were not disclosed to this court," the transcript said.

"The counsel fee or costs awards were not disclosed to this court."

However, the class action suit was still technically ongoing and lawyers for the alleged victims had to get court approval to end it.

In his ruling, the judge in the case said it was frustrating not to know the details of the individual settlements. That information would help him ensure the alleged victims are not giving up any rights by ending the class action suit.

"It may be that the negotiated settlements and the fees are reasonable and in the best interests of the putative class members who settled, but I cannot conclude that based on the information proffered on this discontinuance motion," he wrote.

However, considering none of the plaintiffs in the case are pursuing legal action at this point, the judge ruled it would be "futile."

"There are no representative plaintiffs willing to represent the putative class members who have not settled, and, in any event, the defendants could have the proposed class action mandatorily dismissed for delay," the judge wrote.

In agreeing to discontinue the suit, the judge said that all members of the lawsuit should be sent a copy of his ruling. If they have questions, they should get independent legal advice.

Read the full decision here.

Resources for sexual assault survivors in Canada

If you or someone you know is struggling with sexual assault or trauma, the following resources are available to support people in crisis:

If you are in immediate danger or fear for your safety, you should call 911.

A full list of sexual assault centres in Canada that offer information, advocacy and counselling can be found at ReeseCommunity.com. Resources in your community can be found by entering your postal code.

Helplines, legal services and locations that offer sexual assault kits in Alberta, B.C., Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Quebec, Ontario and Nova Scotia can be found here.

National Residential School Crisis Line: +1 866 925 4419

24-hour crisis line: 416 597 8808

Canadian Human Trafficking Hotline: +1 833 900 1010

Trans Lifeline: +1 877 330 6366

Sexual misconduct support for current or former members of the Armed Forces: +1 844 750 1648

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