Father Stephen Amesse is seen here in a photo posted on a blog in 2009.
Loud applause erupted in court room No. 33 on Tuesday as Father Stephen Amesse was acquitted of sexually assaulting a 14-year-old boy.
The judge scolded the public gallery, which was packed to standing room-only with supporters of the Stittsville priest known as Father Steve.
“This isn’t a cheering section,” said Justice Martin James to the crowd of supporters, including one man dressed in an Ottawa Senators jersey, calling the applause “offensive to me and this court.”
The cheering was also seen as offensive by the family of the complainant, several of them in tears as they streamed out of court.
“I was still in shock over the verdict,” said the complainant’s mother outside court.
A publication ban on the complainant’s name remains in place. He was identified in court only as J.B.
He and his family were regular members of Stittsville’s Holy Spirit parish, where Father Amesse served.
“Despite the verdict, J.B. has done what was right,” said the complainant’s father, who stood by his son’s version of events.
“We didn’t do this for money, we didn’t do it for any reason other than we believe our son. He was afraid this may have happened to others,” said the complainant’s mother. “We don’t regret it because it was the right thing to do.”
Justice James was unconvinced by “contradictory” testimony and the evidence presented by J.B., saying, “Some of it struck me as improbable.”
The complainant first came forward with accusations of a sexual relationship in 2014. Police charged the priest with two counts of sexual assault and two counts of sexual interference from two incidents alleged to have happened in 2008, when the then-14-year-old complainant visited the priest at his residence.
Court heard that J.B. was having difficulties in school. He was big for his age, standing six feet and nearly 200 pounds by puberty, and had struggled with ADHD.
“The accused said he made a point of providing J.B. with extra attention, and said he wanted to make him feel special,” Justice James said in a summary of facts.
The priest would send him birthday and Christmas cards with a $50 bill tucked inside. The amount of money in each card was one of the case’s many contested facts, with J.B. testifying the largest amount he received was $400.
His parents, uncomfortable with the arrangement, asked Amesse to stop sending the gifts, but the priest persisted and suggested the money be shared among all of his siblings.
J.B. testified that, as an altar boy, he would visit Amesse in the rectory, where he claimed the first incident took place.
The complainant testified he had been digging through the rectory archives on a hot day, when Amesse offered him a shower. The complainant claimed the priest then offered him a body shaver and touched the boy’s genitals while showing him how the device worked.
He then claimed the priest offered him a massage “that felt good and weird at the same time,” before driving him home.
Amesse offered a contradictory account, saying there was no shower, no massage and that the shaver, still in its original packaging, was purchased as a gift for the boy, who had taken an interest in bodybuilding.
A second incident, which J.B. claimed had occurred in the rectory, was alleged to have involved a fully clothed massage and the offer of a glass of brandy, which Amesse denied.
“There are some issues with J.B.’s evidence,” Justice James said, noting several “inconsistencies” between the account the complainant gave to police and the one he presented in court.
The judge discarded as “improbable” several key details, including the complainant’s assertion the priest regularly greeted the boy by kissing him on the lips in full view of other members of the congregation, and that the complainant had seen a framed picture of a fully naked man in the priest’s residence.
Justice James also pointed out inconsistencies in details concerning the shower incident, with J.B. testifying the priest was wearing shorts and a T-shirt at the time, but telling police the man was naked.
J.B. also told police he was fondled multiple times, but in testimony, said it happened only once.
Justice James said the Crown sought to portray Amesse as “an abuser who sought out a boy who looked like a man — an easy target for exploitation … and groomed him for exploitation.
“I am unable to come to such a conclusion,” the judge ruled.
Archbishop Terrence Prendergast welcomed the verdict, and said the Archdiocese will review the suspension imposed on Amesse when criminal charges were first laid.
In a statement, the Archdiocese said it would “discuss, with all concerned, how Fr. Amesse may best serve the Church of Ottawa. We expect to review the judge’s decision for guidance in this matter.”