By Dave Baxter
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
An assault trial ended with the acquittal of a 93-year-old former priest in Winnipeg this week, and First Nations leadership is praising the courage of the woman who came forward with those allegations, while also worrying about what message the verdict will now send to other survivors.
On Thursday, a judge acquitted Arthur Masse who was accused of assaulting residential school survivor Victoria McIntosh more than 50 years ago at the former Fort Alexander Residential School on Sagkeeng First Nation, north of Winnipeg.
The judge said she did believe that McIntosh was assaulted, and believed her story that an assault took place in a bathroom at the school sometime between 1968 and 1970 when McIntosh was nine or 10 years old. But the judge said there was not sufficient evidence to prove that it was Masse who committed the assault, and not someone else who may have worked at the residential school.
The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC), which represents 62 First Nations across Manitoba, is now reacting to the verdict, as AMC Grand Chief Cathy Merrick said in a statement that the “precedent” she says it could now setcat, and the message it sends to other assault victims.
Merrick said she worries the acquittal could now discourage other survivors from coming forward with assault allegations.
“We know that victims of assault are often reluctant to come forward because they feel that they are somehow responsible for the attack, and it is alarming to see another victim denied justice for the unimaginable harms experienced in those institutions,” Merrick said.
“This sets a concerning precedent for how the courts hold offenders of these atrocities accountable. A larger conversation must happen with government and First Nations leadership to hold these people responsible while we still can.”
McIntosh told the court she was in a bathroom at the school when Masse entered. She said Masse held her against a wall and fondled her above her clothing before she was able to get away, and alleges he also kissed her roughly on her face.
The judge said while announcing her verdict on Thursday that she found part of Masse’s testimony was “self-serving” and intended to distance himself from the allegations and memories of his role at the school. But the judge said he testified in a straightforward manner and withstood cross-examination, and it could not be proven he committed the alleged assault beyond a reasonable doubt.
McIntosh first reported the assault to police in 2015, two years after she said a meeting about a residential school settlement claim triggered memories.
“As First Nations, we live with the trauma that occurred to our grandparents and parents while they attended residential school,”
“Unfortunately, the justice system is preventing the healing that is needed for our families. Today’s verdict is telling us that those who represent the church are above the law, as there is much evidence that proves that these abuses occurred in residential schools.”
An Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week in Canada for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience or the experience of someone they know.
The crisis line can be reached at 1-866-925-4419.
Dave Baxter is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Winnipeg Sun. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada. –With files from the Canadian Press