Editor’s note: This report was updated at 6:50pm ET, Aug. 18, to reflect comments from attorney Justin Wee.
The Vatican will not conduct a canonical trial into sexual misconduct allegations leveled against Cardinal Marc Ouellet, according to an Aug. 18 statement of the Holy See’s press office.
Through her lawyer, Ouellet’s alleged victim told The Pillar that she is “disappointed” in the Holy See’s decision, and charged that the Vatican has mishandled her complaint.
The Vatican’s statement said that after a preliminary investigation, Pope Francis had concluded there were “insufficient elements” to open a formal canonical trial for sexual assault by Cardinal Ouellet against a person identified only as “F.”
The Aug. 18 statement by Matteo Bruni, director of the Holy See press office said the pope made that decision after “the preliminary investigation entrusted by the pope to Fr. Jacques Servais, S.J., whose conclusion was that there are no elements to initiate a trial against Cardinal Ouellet for sexual assault.”
A preliminary investigation is the first stage undertaken after the allegation of a canonical delict, after which a superior weighs the results to determine whether a formal penal process should be initiated.
The Vatican’s 173-word statement consisted of a single sentence, written in Italian and French, with no official English translation immediately available.
Canadian media reported Tuesday that Ouellet had been accused in a class-action lawsuit of inappropriately touching an intern on several occasions — allegedly giving her unwanted hugs, massages and kisses on the cheek, and touching her posterior at a 2010 event. The woman alleged that on one occasion, Ouellet “held her firmly against him, caressing her back with his hands.”
The alleged victim told Radio-Canada that the unwanted touching took place between 2008 and 2010, while she worked as an intern in the Archdiocese of Quebec, which Ouellet led at that time.
The touching was “quite intrusive … for someone who is my superior, who is the archbishop of Quebec,” the unnamed woman told Radio-Canada.
She alleged one incident in which the cardinal talked about “treating himself” before giving her a kiss on the cheek.
“That made me very uncomfortable, especially the word ‘treating’ himself. As if I was his treat,” she alleged.
Servais, who is not a canon lawyer, is director of the Casa Balthasar, a house of formation run by the Lubac-Balthasar-Speyr Association, for which Ouellet sits on the board.
According to the Holy See, Servais confirmed to the Vatican press office this week that “There are no grounds to open an investigation into the sexual assault of F. by Card. M. Ouellet.”
“Neither in the written report sent to the Holy Father, nor in the testimony via Zoom that I subsequently took in the presence of a member of the Diocesan Ad Hoc Committee, did this person make any accusation that would provide grounds for such an investigation,” he added.
The statement did not take a direct position on the veracity of the woman’s claims, suggesting instead that they did not seem to demonstrate conduct that would lead a canonical trial.
The woman’s attorney told The Pillar Thursday afternoon that his client “is very disappointed, but she is determined to continue, and if there is no canon law trial, it will be civil court where she will testify, and try to convince [the court] that what happened was real.”
The attorney, Justin Wee, confirmed that “in March 2021, Fr. Servais met - by internet - our client, F. That was the only meeting.”
“During the meeting, she thought that he was not that ready to receive her complaint, and that he wasn’t that formed for that kind of investigation. She felt that he was more looking for the motives of our client, instead of trying to understand what happened,” Wee added.
The attorney pushed back on the idea that the alleged embraces and kisses on the cheek might have been the type used in ordinary social convention in Quebec culture.
“It wasn’t only a kiss on the cheek, it was also a way of touching, caressing her shoulders and her back,” Wee said.
“It wasn’t the cultural way, as some might think.”
The lawyer explained that his client, working for the Church in Quebec in 2020, realized while she was undergoing diocesan-sponsored safe environment training that Oullet’s alleged conduct a decade prior seemed to meet the training’s definition of sexual assault.
He said his client contacted the archdiocesan review board, who allegedly agreed that the conduct met the definition of sexual assault. After that communication, Wee said, his client wrote to Pope Francis, at the board’s suggestion.
Wee also pushed back on the idea, floated in some Church circles, that his client’s allegations against Ouellet might be politically motivated, or intended to deflate his prospect of being elected to the papacy.
“It’s not a political game. It’s only someone who has been disappointed by the process,” Wee said.
“There is no reasonable ground for that kind of allegation,” he added.
“Our client decided to write to the pope first. She didn’t want to call the lawyers first. She did it because one year and a half later, she still had no news.”
“She saw that our class action lawsuit had been certified in April, so that’s why she wrote to us, but before, we didn’t even know that those kinds of abuses by Cardinal Ouellet had taken place.”
The lawyer said that the Vatican’s Thursday press release was evidence of its mishandling of her complaint.
“Even today, they decided to release a press communique instead of calling her,” he said.
“It says a lot about how you have to be respectful for a victim who is filing a complaint. Why didn’t they call her just before? This is her story.”
Ouellet has not made any public statement about the allegations of misconduct.
The same woman has also alleged that between 2016 and 2018, she was pressured into performing oral sex at least 15 times upon a priest, Fr. Léopold Manirabarusha, who was at the time her boss - the pastor of the Quebec area parish at which she worked.
The woman says she told the head of the parish council about the coercion in 2017, but claims the priest denied the allegations, and continued to assault her until she quit the job in 2018.
Manirabarusha was removed from priestly ministry in April 2022, after the woman made a report to the archdiocese about the alleged assault.
Cardinal Ouellet, 78, was appointed to lead the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops in 2010. His term of office in that position has expired, and the cardinal is widely expected to retire this autumn.
The Congregation for Bishops is charged with overseeing worldwide investigations of episcopal misconduct, under the aegis of Vos estis lux mundi, 2019 norms on the subject promulgated by Pope Francis.
The class-action lawsuit accusing Ouellet was filed by 101 people, who say they were the victims of clerical sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Quebec, dating back as far as 1940.