How a sexual assault victim’s lawsuit set a precedent that alarmed the Catholic Church

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The Sunday Edition

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Posted: Apr 12, 2019 9:00 AM ET | Last Updated: April 12

Rod MacLeod was sexually abused by a Basilian priest, starting when he was 13 years old. His battle for justice is the subject of a new documentary film, called Prey. (Border City Pictures)


When priests are found guilty of sexual abuse, the Roman Catholic Church follows a familiar script: offer money to the victim, settle out of court and avoid a public trial.

Usually, it works.

Rod MacLeod refused to settle.

Instead, he hired Rob Talach, a lawyer based in London, Ont. — known as “the priest hunter” — and insisted on his day in court.

This legal case is the subject of a film called Prey, which premieres this month at Hot Docs, Canada’s largest documentary film festival.

Watch the film trailer below.

‘He’d start by tickling you’

MacLeod was a 13-year-old student at St. Charles College, an all-boys school in Sudbury, Ont., when his physical education teacher, a Basilian priest named William Hodgson Marshall, began to sexually assault him. The attacks continued for four years.

The school’s gym was located down the hall from the showers, and students had to pass Father Marshall’s office en route.

“That’s where he would grab you and pull you in,” MacLeod told The Sunday Edition host Michael Enright.

“He would kind of pin you between his desk and his chair. He would put his leg up so that it was like an enclosure … and then he’d start by tickling you and then very quickly it would be down into the shorts, and so on.”

Marshall also regularly pulled students into an empty classroom, locked the door and assaulted them.

Priest showed up at victim’s home

MacLeod said when he learned how to avoid him at school, the priest started to show up at his home, which his staunch Catholic parents considered an honour.

He would take MacLeod for “driving lessons,” then park the car and attack him.

Father William Hodgson Marshall was transferred to different communities, but remained a teacher. (Border City Pictures)

“The pattern that is in play in many of these cases is identical,” Talach told Enright. “I’ve joked before that it must be a night school course at seminary because many of the perpetrator priests employ the same mechanisms to get at their victims.”

Talach added that developing a relationship with the victim’s family offers predators a “firewall,” because parents develop an affinity for the priest that — in addition to their religious loyalty and faith — stops them from reporting the abuse to higher authorities.

“And then, of course, there’s another firewall, that if it does get to the ears of the hierarchy of the church, it’s a pretty safe bet that they’re going to … simply move him,” said Talach, who has dubbed this “the silent shuffle.”

It happened to Marshall, who was transferred to four different communities, but each time remained a teacher with access to potential victims.

Prey features never-before-seen footage of Talach questioning Marshall during his deposition, as the priest calmly confesses to four decades of serial sexual abuse of young boys.

In audio provided by lawyer Rob Talach’s office, Talach interrogates Father Marshall during his 2012 deposition. Marshall admits to sexually touching boys at most of the schools where he was a teacher, and says he ‘imagines’ he knew it was a criminal offence at the time. 1:34

“It was a very surreal moment to sit across from a perpetrator priest,” said Talach, “and to take the priest’s confession, in a sense.”

Only about one per cent of cases involving sexual abuse by priests goes to trial, and MacLeod said the church could have avoided it in his case.

“I could have been persuaded not to go forward if I’d felt there was a contrite heart, a true sense that they were sorry and something like this would never happen again,” he said.

“But all I got was, here was another corporation that was protecting all of their assets right to the very letter, dragging things out as much as possible, being less than forthcoming, being less than helpful. So the more I experienced that, the more determined I became to see it through.”

‘There is a cathartic effect to litigation’

Talach said the average amount the church pays its victims is $250,000, “so these aren’t lottery wins.”

In MacLeod’s case, the church tried to abort the trial midway through with an offer of $1 million.

He refused.

Talach had warned him the legal proceedings would be long and difficult, but added that “there is a cathartic effect to litigation beyond the money.”

The jury awarded Rod MacLeod almost $2.6 million, including a landmark ruling for punitive damages of $500,000.

“There really hasn’t been a cost to the church other than paying for the spilt milk in these situations,” said Talach.

“In most of these cases, they’re paying cents on the dollar as to what the real life effect was on the victim. The church in Canada has never had to pay a fine or be punished and no one has spent a day behind bars, from the hierarchy.

“So when we talk about punitive damages, that’s where we start to get that punishment piece — or penance, to use their language – which is more than due here.”

It’s in their DNA to do the wrong thing.

– Lawyer Rob Talach

Neither MacLeod nor Talach is surprised the church has appealed this decision.

“I’ve dealt with them now for 17 years, the Catholic church as a whole, and you can count on one hand the number of times they’ve done the right thing,” Talach said. “So, you know, it’s in their DNA to do the wrong thing.”

MacLeod said he was encouraged at first to hear about the actions Pope Francis was taking against sexual predators in the church, but became discouraged again when the Pope announced that forced celibacy for priests would continue.

“You want some outcome that leads to prevention,” Talach said. “The all-male celibate priesthood needs to go. You need to be like any other occupation in this nation: men, women, gay, straight, trans, single, married, blended family. Just open the doors and fix the problem.”

8 Responses to How a sexual assault victim’s lawsuit set a precedent that alarmed the Catholic Church

  1. Patrick McMahon says:

    So many have contributed so much to the making of this film. May its release reverberate far and wide across Canada, the United States and beyond. The premiere is on Friday at the Hot Docs film festival with additional showings Saturday and Thursday afternoons. I hope they all sell out. I will be there among so many of my friends.

  2. Phil Johnson says:

    Hoping the film will be released across Canada so we can all see it. I too was at St Charles College in the late 60s and recall hod being there. I avoided all the collars there as much as I could by hiding in the library and never once attended a gym class…but got a passing grade in it for whatever reason. Rob Talach was our lawyer as well and was the driving force behind our successful litigation against sullivan. I applaud all those who have come forward and I really hope “Prey” opens the floodgates for other victims to come forward.

  3. Mike Fitzgerald says:

    Phil – the documentary will be released to TV networks in the late summer/early fall according to the producer, Matt Gallagher.
    It will most certainly open the “floodgates” and let others know that they are NOT alone, and should not fear the truth.
    Diocese’ within Canada have been peculiarly silent in the face of what is going on in Australia, Germany, United States, Ireland, etc., and this cannot be tolerated any longer. Open up the closets, and show us your skeletons. Mike.

  4. Mike Fitzgerald says:

    Patrick – thank you, and looking forward to a LONG overdue visit with you, old friend! Doesn’t it feel good to open up, and finally be able to tell the gory truth about this “ROT”?
    Travel safe Pat – see ‘ya there. Mike.

  5. Brenda Brunelle says:

    I hope many are able to attend the May 2nd Release in Toronto if you missed it this past weekend. So many disturbing comments made by Fr. Katulski. The one comment that shouted out the loudest to me was his statement about Hod Marshall being a really good pedophile! I was shocked by his choice of words…. and that he used these words for the filming of the documentary. Is there any wonder as to why this crisis still exists.

    Also, he compared this monster as someone with a disease, he is “my brother” …

    Absolutely disrespectful to survivors of clergy abuse.

    Brenda Brunelle survivor of Michael Fallona csb. Windsor

  6. Adrian says:

    While congratulating all on the successful outcome of the legal case, I wish to draw attention to some comments made by Rob Talach with regard to what he believes should happen to the Roman Catholic (RC) priesthood going forward. To quote Mr. Talach: “…the all male celibate priesthood needs to go. You need to be like any other occupation in this nation…”
    That Mr. Talach is a good lawyer is without question. What he is not is a Catholic, not a theologian, and not an competent expert on what is good or not good for the Catholic Church. His area of competence is in Canadian law. His role is to seek justice for those who have been victimized. He is certainly entitled to his opinion on the way forward as we all are. The fact that he has been successful in a court of law does not equate to being right or accurate in his opinion that the Church should drop the celibacy requirements for the RC Priesthood.
    The RC priesthood is not like any other occupation in this nation. The only purpose for the priesthood is to lead individuals to the salvation of their souls. They are not ordained to be social workers, financiers, or any other occupation in this nation. That many priests/bishops have forgotten or have chosen to not live by the vows they made on ordination is not in question. What is required is to get those individuals out of the priesthood. Their are hundreds of thousands of priests living their vocations all over the world. Of these we rarely hear. That there are far to many of the other types in the news is more then regrettable. Celibacy is not the issue. Sin is.

  7. Mike Fitzgerald says:

    “New Vatican law requires church officials (priests, nuns, brothers?) to immediately report real or rumored sexual abuse cases to their superiors (I assume bishops, cardinals, yes even the Pope).
    What is remarkably missing here is this – what penalty do the “officials” pay if they fail to report to their “superiors” What are the “superiors” bound to do about the reports? Why is there NO duty to report these acts (yes they are criminal acts) to the civil authorities?
    Not one damn thing has changed! If the “superiors”, closeted up in a small closed room decide that there is a danger that the case may become public with the resultant “scandal”, then they will probably report the case to civil authorities. If there is ANY possibility that they (the superiors) can hush it up, pay off the complainant, and hide it all away, THEY WILL do so!
    I would think that the recent example set by Bishop Thomas Dowd of Montreal, in the case of Father Brian Boucher, would be a “water mark” for the Vatican to follow.
    Evidently my thinking is wrong and flawed in THEIR eyes.
    There is little hope for this institution if it is unwilling/unable to follow the very teachings and laws laid out for us by God.
    “The truth will set you free”! Mike.

  8. James Victor says:

    The problem as I see it is that bystanders and victims are not empowered to report. It took me more than 40 years. When you are molested/assaulted as a child, you turn inward and cope the best you can in a world where you can no longer trust authority. It impacts your view on Police, Government, Church and education officials. It also distorts your view on Love and intimacy. In my case it was a Catholic teacher and the issue I have is that this teacher enjoyed a 30 year teaching career despite multiple arrests and subsequent convictions. I think it is important to note that by extension the Catholic school setting we grew up in was truly operated as an arm of the Church. Through the criminal trial I learned that my Perpetrator taught at dozens of schools over the years in Ontario and Quebec. Many of his stops were just a few months. Half way through his career his family became aware of his pedophilia when his nephews reported sexual abuse by him. He came from a large (8+ siblings) family who were all involved in Ontario education including at the Ministry, Directors, OISE, Teaching etc… Despite their knowledge of his pedophilia within the family and knowledge of his arrests for similar acts it appears they did nothing to safeguard students in his care. His family who were victimized didn’t report (until last year long after his teaching credentials were revoked) and it appears none of his hundreds of fellow teachers through the years ever saw anything untoward in his behaviour. In the end he has been arrested half a dozen times and now owns at least three convictions. We all know there are likely many more victims out there who suffer in silence. To an 11 year old, these assaults are life altering and no child deserves that fate. It is very difficult to get a criminal conviction and the process is a brutal experience. So for many of us, civil litigation is the only way forward toward “justice”. I am seeing more and more victims push for trials and that is a great thing. For years it seems these cases have been settled in silence which helped maintain reputations and brands. Jury verdicts and awards are public and that is what is needed as it will help others come forward and do the same. Expect to see more and more of these cases going the distance as we trend away from silent settlements.

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