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Kahnawake Will Exhume The Body Of A Priest Accused Of Sexual Abuse

Residents see it as the first step towards healing for the community.

The Honoré Mercier Bridge between Montreal and Kahnawake.

The Honoré Mercier Bridge between Montreal and Kahnawake.

The last several months have been important ones on the path of healing and reconciliation between the Catholic church and First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples. In the wake of Pope Francis's historic apology for the horrors of the residential school system, there is also healing and reconciliation to be had closer to home.

In Kahnawake, the remains of an allegedly abusive priest will be exhumed from the cemetery at St. Francis Xavier Mission Catholic Church and repatriated to Saint-Jérôme. This is the starting point for what survivors hope will be a process of healing.

"The original decision was made last summer. People wanted him removed," said Melissa Montour-Lazare, a spokesperson for the community in Kahnawake. "There was already controversy in 1999 where the women [he abused] had stated that they didn't want him there."

Reverend Léon Lajoie was the parish priest of St. Francis Xavier Mission Catholic Church in Kahnawake from 1961 to 1996. According to Montour-Lazare, some current members of the St. Francis congregation found it difficult to accept the allegations against him.

"A lot of people visit the church grounds and they put flowers there," Montour-Lazare explained. "They can't make a martyr out of this guy because it's a slap in the face of the survivors that have been abused by him. They don't want this guy being patronized."

Residents of Kahnawake met with the Jesuits of Canada on August 22 to discuss the possibility of exhuming Lajoie. The Jesuits subsequently offered to cover the cost and organize the labour of disinterment. Lajoie will be repatriated to Saint-Jérôme, where he will be buried alongside other priests.

"We were happy that in the spirit of reconciliation, they were actually willing to go that route," Montour-Lazare said.

Repatriating Reverend Lajoie will be the first step towards healing for the community.

"Once he's gone, the larger healing processes are going to begin," Montour-Lazare said. "There's generational trauma that came with these actions, [...] generational trauma that we're going to have to start dealing with now."

Montour-Lazare added that the healing process will be carried out "in a traditional sense, because not everyone wants to go sit on a fluffy couch somewhere. There's ways that we do it according to our culture."

Montour-Lazare said there are currently limited resources for survivors of sexual abuse in Kahnawake, something that needs to change.

"We would like to see more resources made available to Kahnawake to help the people, especially in the traditional sense, traditional healing and traditional social workers. There are women who are prepared and well-versed to handle victims of sexual violence and other traumas."

If you require resources or assistance surrounding sexual assault in Quebec, the CAVAC helpline is available 24/7. Those who may need support can call 1-866-532-2822. Other crisis lines and 24/7 options can be found at The Lifeline Canada. If you need immediate assistance, please call 911 or go to your nearest hospital. Support is available.

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