WINNIPEG — A judge acquitted a now-retired priest who was accused of forcing himself on a residential school student more than 50 years ago, saying she believes an assault happened but could not determine beyond a reasonable doubt who did it.
Victoria McIntosh, who had about a dozen supporters with her in a Winnipeg courtroom on Thursday, grimaced and had tears in her eyes as Court of King's Bench Justice Candace Grammond found Arthur Masse, 93, not guilty of indecent assault.
McIntosh clutched a childhood jacket her grandmother made for her that she wasn't allowed to bring to the residential school.
She testified earlier this month she was assaulted by Masse in a bathroom of the Fort Alexander Residential School north of Winnipeg sometime between 1968 and 1970 when she was nine or 10 years old.
Grammond said she found McIntosh to be a credible witness as the First Nations woman attempted to recount details from the day in question decades later.
"(McIntosh) did not exaggerate or overstate her evidence. I accept that the complainant was assaulted in a washroom at the residential school in the manner that she described or in a very similar manner," said Grammond.
However, Grammond added McIntosh's identification of Masse was not "sufficiently reliable" to convince her he was the one who committed the assault.
"Based on the entirety of the evidence, I have a reasonable doubt as to whether the accused assaulted the complainant," Grammond said.
"I have concluded, therefore, that the accused must be acquitted of the charge."
The Canadian Press doesn't typically name complainants in such cases, but McIntosh has said she wanted to speak publicly and no publication ban was ordered.
McIntosh and Masse were the only witnesses to testify during the two-day judge-alone trial earlier this month.
GRAPHIC WARNING: The following details may disturb some readers.
McIntosh told the court she was in the bathroom at the school when Masse entered. She said Masseheld her against a wall using his forearm while he used his other hand to fondle her above her clothing. Before she was able to get away, Masse kissed her quickly and roughly on her face, McIntosh testified. She said she recognized it was Masse because of his collar.
The woman said the assault lasted about a minute, and left her scared and nauseated.
McIntosh first reported the assault to police in 2015, two years after she said a meeting about a residential school settlement claim triggered memories. She told the court that she tried to forget Masse's name but always knew what happened to her.
"The fact that McIntosh did not want to think about him should not be discredited," Grammond said during her ruling.
During trial, Masse's lawyer questioned McIntosh's memory of what happened after the woman testified Masse kissed her but did not include that in her report to police.
Masse's lawyer argued that given the nature of the allegations, the passage of time and inconsistencies in McIntosh's testimony, the court could not deem her a reliable witness.
Grammond disputed that in her ruling, saying McIntosh was fair and straightforward in her testimony.
"(McIntosh) acknowledged, quite reasonably, that memories generally fade over time. … In addition, (she) was not shaken on cross-examination and clearly rejected any suggestions that the perpetrator of the assault was anyone by the accused," she said.
"There was no suggestion that the complainant had any motive to fabricate the allegations."
Masse testified that he did not assault McIntosh and had no recollection of interacting with her when she was a student.
Grammond found part of Masse's testimony was "self-serving" and intended to distance himself from McIntosh's allegations and memories of his role at the school. But the judge said he testified in a straightforward manner and withstood cross-examination.
First Nations leaders in the province have commended McIntosh for her bravery.
"We know that victims of assault are often reluctant to come forward because they feel that they are somehow responsible for the attack, and it is alarming to see another victim denied justice for the unimaginable harms experienced in those institutions," Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Cathy Merrick said in a statement.
Grand Chief Jerry Daniels, of the Southern Chiefs' Organization, said in a statement he admired McIntosh's strength in sharing her story.
"It is extremely difficult to confront the abuse one has experienced as a child."
Martina Fisher, a residential school survivor who works with the organization, said she was not surprised by the outcome, but encourages others to continue to speak out.
"There are a lot of truths that still have not come out to the public and I encourage all survivors to continue to share their stories," said Fisher.
McIntosh declined to comment after the verdict.
The Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program has a hotline to help residential school survivors and their relatives suffering trauma invoked by the recall of past abuse. The number is 1-866-925-4419.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on March 30, 2023.
Brittany Hobson, The Canadian Press