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Governed by fear

BY Ben Powless Dec 1, 2022

A priest who was reported to have abused over 100 children from the 1960s to the 1980s, including in several Indigenous communities, is now alleged to have begun abusing children in the 1950s at a Montreal high school. 

George Epoch, who died in 1986, was reported to have abused boys during his time in three Jesuit missions in the First Nations communities of Wiikwemkoong, Cape Croker and Saugeen in Ontario, and in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In 1992, the Jesuit Fathers of Upper Canada apologized for the abuse and paid financial settlements into the hundreds of thousands the next year to over 100 abused children.

Now, in an interview with CBC News, two students who attended classes he led at Loyola High School in Montreal in 1957-1958 say he inappropriately touched them. Alfred Martijn and Bob Lemieux have both come forward to document abuse they said they suffered at his expense.

“When you are confronted with something that’s totally foreign to your upbringing, it’s more than a shock,” Martijn told the CBC. “You don’t know how to handle it. You just don’t know. And what takes over is fear. You are governed by fear. It’s as simple as that.”

As boarding students, they were unable to leave, and Martijn said he could not tell his parents, who believed the Jesuits were without fault, nor could he tell his classmates. Lemieux, who was in the same class, said that Epoch at first treated him nicely, but later tried to forcibly kiss him, which led him to plead to his parents not to be made to return. 

“I was petrified,” Lemieux told CBC. “It’s something that’s lived with me forever.” 

After Loyola, Epoch was assigned to Jesuit retreat houses in Beaconsfield, Quebec, and then Pickering and Guelph, Ontario, between 1963 and 1969 before being sent to Wiikwemikoong First Nation until 1971. From there he would become the parish priest in Saugeen First Nation and Cape Croker until 1983. 

Lawyer John Tamming represented several people from those First Nations communities who said they were abused by Epoch. He said at the time that Jesuit lawyers told him that much of Epoch’s personnel file was missing, which Tamming suspected was an attempt to hide inappropriate behaviour.

Tamming did not respond to a request for comment. José Sanchez, a spokesperson for the Jesuits of Canada, said that “voluminous” files were produced as part of the lawsuits in the 1990s, and their group was unaware of anyone advising that files had been lost. 

Sanchez clarified that the first allegations made against Epoch came in 1985 to Friar Francis McGee, which was uncorroborated before his death in 1986. In 1990, McGee reported the issue to the police. In 1991, four individuals came forward, followed by another in 1992, with the rest during 1993 and 1994. 

The Jesuits reached the conclusion that “Epoch’s activities appeared to have largely been restricted to his postings in First Nations villages where he lived by himself outside of Jesuit communities,” he said. Since then, one individual who attended a retreat house in Ontario and two others from Halifax have come forward.

Sanchez said the Jesuits encourage anyone who suffered abuse by a member of their order to contact the appropriate law enforcement agency or child-protection agency. They can also contact the order’s regional delegate to confidentially report allegations of misconduct at wblakeney@jesuits.org.

The Jesuits are conducting an audit of personnel and delegate files. It was temporarily halted due to the pandemic, but Sanchez said the work resumed in August and is nearly complete. The Jesuit Archives have been working with active investigations into cemeteries at the Jesuit Residential Schools in Spanish and Wiikwemkoong, Ontario. 

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Ben Powless is a Kanien'kehá:ka and Anishnabek writer and photographer, currently living in Ottawa. He has a degree in Human Rights, Indigenous and Environmental Studies from Carleton University.