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Sex abuse case sparks Ottawa to assert papal ambassador's diplomatic immunity

Global Affairs Canada has issued a certificate of diplomatic immunity for the Pope's representative in Canada who faces a demand for archival documents in a sexual and physical abuse case involving a B.C. Roman Catholic seminary.
pope  francis apology to indigenous groups from canada april 1 2022
Pope Francis, head of the Catholic Church, apologized April 1 to delegates representing Indigenous Peoples from Canada for the church’s role in the residential school system.

Three weeks after Pope Francis apologized for Catholic residential school abuses, Ottawa issued a diplomatic immunity certificate for the pope’s ambassador who faced a lawyer's demand for records in other Catholic school sexual and physical abuse allegations.

“Clearly, that consent is not forthcoming, because the certificate was issued,” Sandra Kovacs, lawyer for complainant Mark O’Neill said.

“This position is not surprising, particularly in light of the frustration also expressed by residential school survivors, who have asked Pope Francis for unfettered access to records with the Vatican’s missionary department, too,” Kovacs said.

Kovacs said O’Neill and another client share those frustrations.

It was April 1 after Francis met with Canadian residential school survivors that he expressed indignation and shame about the church’s role.

"For the deplorable conduct of these members of the Catholic Church, I ask for God's forgiveness and I want to say to you with all my heart: I am very sorry.”

Further, the Pope said, “I encourage the bishops and the Catholic community to continue taking steps toward the transparent search for truth, and to foster healing and reconciliation.”

That didn’t sit well with Kovacs.

“There cannot be truth, justice, and sincere reconciliation between the Roman Catholic Church and any abuse survivors in Canada if the Roman Catholic Church continues to stonewall survivors when it comes to accessing historical records,” Kovacs said.

O’Neill alleges he was sexually abused by Mission, B.C. Roman Catholic priests and a seminary employee. He was between 13 and 17 years old at the time of alleged events. He wants the pope’s envoy to Canada to hand over documents related to the case.

However, on April 19, Global Affairs Canada sent a letter to B.C. Supreme Court regarding O’Neill’s case and highlighting a certificate of diplomatic immunity for the nuncio and archives.

O’Neill and Kovacs intend to fight on.

The defendants listed in the suit are: Seminary of Christ the King; Westminster Abbey Ltd.; the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Vancouver, a Corporation Sole; Emerick Lazar; Harold Vincent Sander a.k.a. Dom Placidus Sander; Rohrbach and John Doe.

In a March 24 application to B.C. Supreme Court, O’Neill and Kovacs seek an order that Rev. Ian Jurkovic, the Apostolic Papal Nuncio to Canada, hand over multiple records.

That may not happen, though.

“I hereby certify under the authority of the Minister of Foreign Affairs that a diplomatic mission of the Apostolic Nunciature (Embassy of the Holy See) was established in Canada with the consent of the Government of Canada and that its archives enjoy inviolability under the Foreign Missions and International Organizations Act,” wrote Global Affairs Canada’s Jessica Dawson, a deputy director in the criminal, security and diplomatic law division.

Further, Dawson certified that since Aug. 27, 2021, Jurkovic has been accredited as the apostolic nuncio or ambassador of the Apostolic Nunciature in Canada.

“As such, Mr. Jurkovic enjoys, in Canada, the privileges and immunities as set out under Schedule I of the Foreign Missions and International Organizations Act,” Dawson said.

What O’Neill and Kovacs want includes correspondence between the seminary, the abbey, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vancouver and the papal nuncio about sexual misconduct at the seminary; speaking notes from meetings attended by the nuncio where sexual misconduct has been addressed; investigation records arising from a May 1987 anonymous letter to the nuncio from seminarians; and investigation records about sexual misconduct at the seminary.

O’Neill alleges Lazar, a priest, broke his arm. Sander, also a priest, then allegedly delayed access to medical treatment to conceal the fracture. Sander died in 2021, according to the suit.

The application also wants any correspondence or documents in the papal nuncio’s possession relating to criminal proceedings against Sander.

A hearing into the application is set for April 28.

Kovacs said while the nuncio can use the immunity shield, he could consent to the release of documents.

None of the allegations have been proven in court.

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