30 Wiikwemkoong sex assault victims of Fr. Epoch, SJ join in class action

The late Father George Epoch, c. 1952.

Late priest served in community many years, described as prolific Canadian sex offender

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following story contains information about sexual abuse that took place in Wiikwemkoong during the mid-to-late 20th century. This information may be disturbing to those who have suffered from sexual abuse. Support is available 24/7 through the First Nations and Inuit Hope for Wellness Help Line at 1-855-242-3310 or the Manitoulin Family Resources crisis line at 1-800-465-6788.

WIIKWEMKOONG – Jesuit Father George Epoch and Brother O’Meare sexually abused dozens of children when they were stationed in Wiikwemkoong and these crimes have formed the basis for a pending class action lawsuit filed on behalf of victims from that community.

“I want this to be as painless for these people as possible,” said Michael Troy, an associate of Merchant Law Group LLP in British Columbia who is on the team representing the victims. He is joined by Chris Simoes, also of Merchant Law Group LLP but based in Toronto.

Father Epoch first served in Wiikwemkoong in 1960. He was seen as a literal Godsend by many in the community who viewed him as a kind, generous man who worked to support families and especially children in the community. 

His obituary also reflected that impression. Father Epoch died in Toronto on September 30, 1986 at the age of 66, some years before the first allegations of abuse emerged publicly. He is buried in Wiikwemkoong at the Holy Cross Mission cemetery.

The Epoch name became national news last summer when CBC News published a story about a class action launched against the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Halifax-Yarmouth, with Father Epoch being the central figure in that case. 

While Father Epoch has been named as an abuser in this region in the past, Brother O’Meare’s name has not previously surfaced in abuse claims against the Jesuits.

This new Wiikwemkoong lawsuit has been in the works for the past two years and has recently been filed as a class action. Its current list of roughly 30 claimants does not include anyone who has previously been a part of other abuse settlements with the Jesuits. Only Wiikwemkoong band members are eligible to be represented in this case.

The following defendants are listed in the lawsuit:

“The Jesuit fathers of Upper Canada (A.K.A. English Canada province), 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.”

Many of the victims attended Indian Day Schools in their home community which led them to cross paths with Father Epoch in Wiikwemkoong’s Holy Cross Mission.

“The claims centre not around the school but in the various churches, church houses and the rectories,” said Mr. Troy.

Mr. Troy said he is not actively seeking out victims to join the lawsuit and anyone who has stepped forward has done so voluntarily.

“I have no intention of phoning people looking for a claim. When you come forward it is up to you, if you ever come forward,” he said. “People think they can bury it … many would never admit to being assaulted by a priest or a worker, of any gender. They took it to their graves.”

This new lawsuit is designed to help victims get the support they need to process what happened to them at such a vulnerable age. Mr. Troy said he was currently in negotiations with the opposing solicitors. 

Victims have two main courses of action in their healing journey: they can turn to community elders and traditional techniques to help heal their trauma or they can hire the professional services of a psychologist or psychiatrist. It’s likely that some will choose both options. 

This falls into the realm of “future care” as part of the possible settlement, something Mr. Troy said was among his highest priorities.

“I’m determined that future care money will be provided. Thirty, 40 years later, people are still hurting,” he said, adding that what victims choose to do with their settlement money is entirely their choice.

Mr. Troy said the abuse has deeply impacted numerous community members for decades.

“We have outside people who have never been back to Wiikwemkoong,” he said. “I don’t know if they’ll ever go back, to be honest.”

The Expositor reached out to Wiikwemkoong Ogimaa Duke Peltier and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sault Ste. Marie. Both expressed that this lawsuit was in too early of a stage for them to make comments. The Jesuits of Canada did not respond to requests for comment by press deadline Monday.

The Expositor will be following the developments in this case as more information becomes available, as well as sharing stories and past records that bring context to the crimes of Father George Epoch and Brother O’Meare from their time in Wiikwemkoong.