Canadian Inuit leader asks Pope Francis to intervene in case of priest accused of sex assault

Father Johannes Rivoire is pictured in Arviat in 1979. The leader of the Inuit delegation that privately met with Pope Francis asked the pontiff to intervene in the case of Rivoire, who is accused of sexually assaulting children, but was never tried for charges. (Library and Archives Canada)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

The leader of the Inuit delegation meeting privately with Pope Francis on Monday has called on the pontiff to personally intervene in the case of a fugitive Oblate priest accused of sexually assaulting children in Nunavut.

Natan Obed, president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), named Father Johannes Rivoire in his discussion with the Pope. Rivoire was never tried on charges in Canada because he returned to France, which does not extradite French nationals.

“I would ask you in your capacity as the head of the Catholic Church to speak with Johannes Rivoire and direct him to return to Canada to stand trial for the harms he has done,” Obed told the Pope.

“I understand that this action may not be successful, for many reasons. In that event, I would ask you to use your influence with the relevant authorities in France to have Rivoire extradited to Canada or tried in France.”

WATCH | National Inuit leader says the Pope can play a role in bringing about justice:

Natan Obed, the leader of the Inuit delegation, says Inuit want this new relationship with the Roman Catholic Church to be based on action. 1:29

Obed told CBC News ahead of the meeting that, of all the requests he planned to make of Pope Francis — for a papal apology for residential schools, for the church to pay reparations to survivors and for the disclosure of all residential school documents — this one may have the most impact.

“We would like to see those victims have semblance of justice and the families of the deceased victims also see some level of accountability,” he said.

Calgary Archbishop William McGrattan, who was in the room to witness the meeting between the Pope and Inuit delegates, said Pope Francis understands the importance of Obed’s request.

“The church needs to address this in a forthright manner,” McGrattan told a press conference following the private audience.

“This is not just one isolated case … If there are allegations that someone has committed this abuse, they need to be brought to justice and the church should not stand in the way.”

Pope Francis meets with Inuit delegates at the Vatican on Monday, March 28, 2022. (Canadian Press/HO-Vatican Media)

Obed said he believes Pope Francis can play a personal role in bringing about justice.

“If he would take the time to tell Father Rivoire to go to Canada, then perhaps that would be successful in a way that no other body could,” Obed said.

“He has a unique place at this point in time to help Inuit and I hope that he chooses to do so.”

The ‘cost of inaction’

Rivoire spent time in several Nunavut communities from the 1960s on, but returned to France in 1993. The RCMP issued a warrant for Rivoire’s arrest in 1998.

In a 2017 assessment, the Public Prosecution Service of Canada found “there was no longer a reasonable prospect of conviction regarding the charges,” and “continuing the prosecution was no longer in the public interest.”

WATCH | Archbishop responds to Natan Obed’s demand:

Calgary Archbishop William McGrattan responds to Inuit leader Natan Obed’s request for Pope Francis to intervene personally in the case of Father Johannes Rivoire. 0:39

Rivoire’s arrest warrant was cancelled in 2018 following the decision to stay the charges. The fact that France does not extradite its citizens appears to have been a key factor in the decision.

Last year, Justice Minister David Lametti said that while he can’t resurrect the stayed charges, “there is always the possibility that further evidence might be brought forward by other complainants or other witnesses.”

In a statement to CBC News, Lametti’s office said the Department of Justice can’t confirm or deny whether Canada is in touch with France regarding the extradition of Rivoire due to the confidential nature of state-to-state communications.

The office said that, generallly speaking, the department initiates extradition proceedings following a request from provincial or federal prosecutors.

Obed told CBC News he’s spoken to Lametti’s office, which he said has pledged to support efforts to bring Rivoire to trial.

“There is a cost of inaction,” Obed said.

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools or by the latest reports. A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419

Related stories from around the North: 

Canada: ‘That is so sick’: Sex charges in Canada against fugitive French priest stayed, CBC News

Finland: Sami Parliament in Finland agrees more time needed for Truth and Reconciliation Commission preparation, Eye on the Arctic

Norway: Sami education conference looks at how to better serve Indigenous children, Eye on the Arctic

Sweden: Sami in Sweden start work on structure of Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Eye on the Arctic

United States: Alaska reckons with missing data on murdered Indigenous women, Alaska Public Media

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