War crimes trial judge tasked by Pope Francis to investigate Quebec cardinal

MONTREAL (OSV News) -- Pope Francis has asked a retired Quebec judge to conduct an investigation "into the facts, circumstances and imputability of (an) alleged offense" targeting Cardinal Gérald Lacroix.

In a letter that he personally signed, the pope indicated to Judge André Denis that he was appointing him to investigate acts of a sexual nature allegedly committed by the archbishop of Quebec before he was ordained a priest.

At the end of this investigation, the pope added, "you will take care to produce for me a detailed report of your steps and your conclusions."

The letter is dated Feb. 8, two days after the meeting of the Council of Cardinals in which Cardinal Lacroix participated in Rome even though, a few days earlier, the Quebec Archbishop announced that he was "temporarily withdrawing" from his archdiocese's functions.

"An allegation made public on January 25 concerning His Eminence Cardinal Gérald Cyprien Lacroix, Archbishop of Quebec, was brought to my attention," the pope wrote in his four-paragraph letter.

Présence, a French-language news agency in Quebec, was able to consult the papal letter to Denis.

"In order to follow up on this report made in the specific context of a class action (civil suit) in Quebec, and considering the need to conduct an investigation into the facts, circumstances and imputability of the alleged offense, I appoint you as investigator in order to conduct the investigation," the pope told the retired judge of the Superior Court of Quebec.

Pope Francis added that Denis, who has already conducted investigations into the archives of around 10 dioceses in Quebec, can "call on other people to assist (him) in this investigation, in particular for expertise in canon law, where applicable."

Pope Francis' letter specified that Denis' investigative mandate is directly linked to the provisions of the 2019 law titled "Vos Estis Lux Mundi" ("You are the Light of the World").

This apostolic letter sets out several rules that the sovereign pontiff promulgated to fight against sexual abuse in the Catholic Church and later renewed in 2023.

This legal text specifies in particular the standards and procedures for reporting and investigating sexual abuse committed or concealed by priests, religious and even bishops, regardless of their episcopal rank.

Article 13 of "Vos Estis" explains "the progress of the investigation."

Under this law, Denis must collect "relevant information concerning the facts"; he can access "information and documents necessary for the purposes of the investigation held in the archives of ecclesiastical offices"; if he fears that documents will be "subtracted or destroyed," he must then take "the necessary measures for their preservation."

The retired judge will also be able to collect useful information for his investigation from all people or institutions, not only from the Catholic Church but "also civil" entities, according to the law's text.

The person carrying out an investigation under "Vos Estis" is required "to act impartially and without conflicts of interest."

If Denis were, during his mandate, to consider that he "finds himself in a conflict of interest or is not able to maintain the necessary impartiality to guarantee the integrity of the investigation, he has the obligation to abstain and to report the circumstance," in this case, directly to Pope Francis.

Finally, "the presumption of innocence and the legitimate protection of good reputation are always recognized for the person investigated," indicates Article 13 regarding the conduct of investigations ordered by a Vatican dicastery (department) or by the pope himself. This text also explains that the investigator informs the accused "of the investigation into his charge," hears him "on the facts" and invites him "to present a defense brief."

Although retired, Denis has received several investigative mandates from dioceses in Quebec since 2020.

Previously, he had examined the personal files of all priests linked to nine dioceses in order to discover "any possible indication of sexual abuse of minors or vulnerable people."

In June 2022, after examining the files -- including the secret elements contained in them -- of some 6,809 priests, deacons and staff members of the nine dioceses, the judge confirmed that between 1940 and 2021, 87 sexual abusers had victimized children, adolescents and vulnerable people.

The Archdiocese of Quebec has never undertaken such research in its archives.

In June 2023, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate of Canada and France appointed Denis to lead an independent investigation into allegations of sexual abuse made against Oblate Father Johannes Rivoire. Denis must in particular clarify the circumstances which allowed the missionary priest to leave Canada without ever facing justice. Its final report must be made public, in French, English and Inuktitut, no later than April 1, 2024.

At the Superior Court of Quebec, Denis is recognized as the first judge in Canada to preside over a trial under the Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act. In 2009, he sentenced Rwandan refugee Désiré Munyaneza to life imprisonment for his active participation in the 1994 genocide.

"The accused, an educated and privileged man, chose to kill, rape and pillage in the name of the supremacy of his ethnic group, reminding us again that every time a man claims to belong to a superior race ... humanity is in danger," Denis declared in a notable judgment.

Pope Francis does not mention in his letter a final date for the submission of the investigative report into Cardinal Lacroix. Denis understands, however, that "the investigation must be concluded as soon as possible."

"I set about the task upon my appointment (on Feb. 8) and I wish to present my conclusions to the pope as quickly as possible," Denis told Présence. "I will not make any further comments on my investigation."

In a video made public Jan. 30, Cardinal Lacroix indicated that an investigation had been launched. "The step of reporting to the Holy Father has been completed and we will await the outcome of the ongoing process," confirmed the Archdiocese of Quebec.

When questioned, lawyer Alain Arsenault, who is leading the class action suit against the Archdiocese of Quebec, said there was no question of him participating in this internal process.

"It is not credible," Arsenault said, because it is a church-appointed investigation.

Today, "we no longer ask police officers to investigate the police. It's elementary. And it's the same for the church. As long as it is an internal process, chaired by friends as we saw for Cardinal Marc Ouellet (subject of a recent investigation conducted by the Vatican), it will not be credible."

Arsenault did not respond to Présence's questions about the participation of the alleged victim of Cardinal Lacroix in Denis' investigation.

"I believe that this is the first time, since the promulgation of the pope's motu proprio, that we have learned that a lay person has been appointed investigator," theologian Jean-Guy Nadeau, author of "A Deep Wound" (Médiaspaul, 2020), a book on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.

"It's a step forward," he said.

- - - François Gloutnay is a staff writer for Présence in Montreal. This article was originally published in French by Présence and is translated with permission for OSV News.- - - NOTES: As he did during his investigation into Oblate Father Johannes Rivoire, Judge André Denis does not hesitate to give his email address to anyone who can help him fulfill the mandate he received from Pope Francis. Those who wish to communicate relevant information in complete confidentiality can reach him at j.andredenis@icloud.com.