10/06/2011 11:43 EDT | Updated 12/06/2011 05:12 EST

Catholic congregation agrees to pay up to $18 million to sex-abuse victims

MONTREAL - A major Roman Catholic organization has agreed to pay up to $18 million in a historic compensation agreement for sexual abuse committed over several decades in Quebec.

The Congregation of Holy Cross said Thursday that it has agreed to issue an apology and financially compensate victims for abuses at three different institutions over a five-decade span.

The amount is believed to be the most ever awarded in Quebec and, lawyers say, perhaps even in Canada.

The agreement stems from an out-of-court mediated settlement, spurred by the threat of a class-action lawsuit by four of the earliest victims to come forward.

The first to try speaking out was Rene Cornellier Jr.

In 1972, shortly after his mother's death, he was sent to Montreal's College Notre-Dame, a boys-only boarding school. During his four years there, Cornellier was repeatedly sexually abused by several priests.

He threatened to go public with the abuse years later. He wanted school administrators to acknowledge the crimes and he sent them letters urging them to do something about it. But he passed away in 1994, soon after sending those letters.

His family only became aware of the abuse long after his death. Three years ago, a newspaper reporter unearthed the letters sent to school administrators as part of a Montreal Gazette investigation into abuse claims.

Cornellier's sibling, Robert, expressed relief Thursday that after several decades his younger brother's fight for justice had finally yielded results.

"He fought for almost seven or eight months before he died to bring that forward and today we can say that he didn't do that for nothing," Cornellier said in an interview.

"You don't choose your cause. The cause comes to you and we said, 'We have no choice, we have to do it for his memory.'"

The agreement applies to three Quebec institutions that are now defunct — Montreal's College Notre-Dame between 1960 and 2001; College Saint-Cesaire, located south of Montreal, between 1960 and 1991; and Ecole Notre Dame in the Lower St. Lawrence region (1959-1964).

At least 85 people are thought to be eligible for compensation. Lawyers believe that number could be much higher, but that many victims are likely too traumatized to come forward.

"I never thought there would be so many people that would join the suit because I didn't know there were so many victims," said Robert Cornellier, who heads the Committee of Pedophile Victims at College Notre-Dame.

"I'm now convinced there are many others who, upon hearing the news, will join now."

The deal was negotiated over 10 months before a judge.

Up to $18 million will be divided among victims — anywhere from $10,000 to $250,000, depending on the type of sexual abuse suffered and the impact of the attacks.

Lawyer Alain Arsenault, one of the lawyers representing victims, called the news historic.

"It's the first time a religious order in Quebec — and probably Canada — comes to an out-of-court settlement for sexual abuse having taken place at this institution a long time ago," Arsenault said.

The class action had not yet been certified by Quebec Superior Court. Arsenault said he hoped other diocese and religious orders might follow suit and avoid lengthy legal battles in the future.

The next step will be for Superior Court Justice Claude Auclair to sign off on the agreement several weeks from now.

Details of the settlement stipulate that victims are eligible for compensation whether they were abused by a clergy member, or by a secular employee of the congregation.

Religious officials issued a statement of apology Thursday.

"I am truly pained by these transgressions and apologize, on behalf of the Congregation of Holy Cross, for all of the pain and suffering this abuse has inflicted on the victims," said Jean-Pierre Aumont, the Canadian provincial superior of the congregation.

"Damage was done, and we have taken measures to repair them. We hope that the victims will finally be able to throw off the veil of silence, heal from their wounds as best as possible and fully embrace their future."

Sebastien Richard, a victim at College Notre-Dame whose accused abuser was acquitted during a trial five years ago, said the admission now is a far cry from what he heard during the criminal trial he endured.

"All this is a judicial process as well as a PR process, so to me I guess they had to sign something," said Richard, who also sits on the victims' board.

"There's an improvement in their public statements but, this being said, I'm not sure I really believe the sincerity of what is written on there."

The compensation will be funded entirely by the Congregation of Holy Cross, as will the costs of the legal representation of the colleges involved in the class action.

Compensation will be paid to victims and — in a change from similar deals — also to their parents after the claims have been processed.

Implementation of the settlement will be the responsibility of an independent adjudicator.

The adjudicator will be responsible for determining the soundness of claims and the individual dollar amounts to be paid, based on the schedules established in the settlement.

Lawyer Gilles Gareau said it was important that victims not be required to feel like they are on trial, being grilled by lawyers as they seek compensation.

"The only person who is permitted to address any questions to the victim is the adjudicator," Gareau said.

"People who have been victimized once already don't need to be victimized again by the lawyers."

As part of the settlement, Rene Cornellier Jr. will also have a $100,000 scholarship named after him, in recognition of his role as the first victim to denounce the school.

For Robert Cornellier, he said Thursday was like the closing of a chapter in his brother's crusade for justice.

"They did everything to stop him," Cornellier said.

"But today the story is finished, (almost) 18 years later."