WARNING: This article contains information about allegations of sexual abuse.
A settlement has been reached in a lawsuit involving accusations that a former Catholic priest on Vancouver Island sexually abused a 10-year-old girl during confession decades ago.
The woman, now 57 and whose identity is protected, filed a notice of civil claim in 2020 against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Victoria, in B.C. Supreme Court. She alleges that Father Gerhard Hartmann, who has since died, used his position as an authority figure to take advantage of her when she was a parishioner at St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church at Nanaimo in 1976.
Details of the settlement were not available, but the plaintiff and her lawyer Robert Talach told the News Bulletin the matter was settled to everyone’s satisfaction.
Beginning in 1976, Hartmann is alleged to have, “over at least the next year,” kissed her, molested her and engaged “in other sexual activities” numerous times, her notice alleges, and the incidents occurred in the church “within the context of the sacrament of reconciliation, otherwise known as the confessional.” Talach said the priest was transferred to Port Hardy in June 1979.
The notice also alleges that when the woman notified the diocese early in 2000, the claim states she was met with a “dismissive” response and no action was taken. The diocese failed in its “duty of care to her and were thereby negligent,” the notice claims.
In its legal response, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Victoria acknowledged it ordained Hartmann and that he did serve as a priest in its jurisdiction, but in response to the sexual abuse claims, “any such acts were unauthorized, outside the scope of his employment, unrelated to any conduct authorized and without any knowledge by the diocese.”
The complainant sought unspecified damages for mental distress and pain and suffering. She told the News Bulletin the abuse has impacted her life negatively. She said she had a successful career until the trauma began affecting her and while she was raised Catholic, she has lost faith.
“I have struggled with addiction and I have fallen into despair until I have become suicidal … I think that there are many other victims of trauma who can relate to that and I don’t believe I’m alone, [that] I was the only one who was assaulted…” she said. “I don’t think his first acts happened in the confession. You do that after you have become emboldened, after you believe that you can get away with it. And I really want to reach out to others. That’s my whole purpose in speaking.”
There is “an overwhelming amount of sexual abuse in the Catholic church” that needs to be addressed, said the woman.
“It’s a lifelong burden that someone carries after they’ve been sexually assaulted,” she said. “And particularly, if you’re a believing Catholic, and you’re sexually assaulted by your priest, that is an act of physical assault. It is an act of mental assault, and it’s a spiritual assault. And it affects every aspect of the Catholic parish member’s life.”
In a statement from the diocese, Bishop Gary Gordon stated the news was “undoubtedly distressing for victim-survivors of sexual abuse,” whom the church wants to assure of its support.
“The decision to come forward and report sexual abuse by clergy, religious, employees, or volunteers may be difficult and often requires considerable courage,” he said.
He said the diocese has put in place an independent reporting process managed by psychologists, counsellors, and social workers, has a “responsible ministry program” to screen all members of the clergy, volunteers and employees, and has protocols to ensure safe environments for children and others who are vulnerable.
Should victims wish to involve the church in their healing plans, it will offer pastoral support and healing resources for the person and their family, he said.
Gordon also said the church prays that those who suffered sexual abuse and their families will find peace and healing from past wrongs.
The incidents happened more than 40 years ago and Talach said he and his client are “not about to slam the present administration,” but also said there needs to be change.
“They’re building a reactive model to this, which I think displays a lack of understanding that this is an ongoing threat in the church,” he said. “The role and power and dynamics and … employment requirements of a priest are identical today as they were when [his client] and hundreds of other people were abused in past decades. I don’t know what has magically made the risk disappear.”
None of the allegations in the lawsuit were proven in court.
Talach said his client wants other potential victims to know they are not alone and they can reach out to her discreetly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To access the diocese’s reporting agency, visit www.rcdvictoria.org/responsible-ministry.