WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
As a Jesuit priest in Ontario, George Epoch sexually abused dozens of children in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.
But Epoch’s abuse allegedly dates back even earlier, to the 1950s, when he taught at Loyola High School, a private Catholic school in Montreal.
Two students who were part of Epoch’s 1957-58 preparatory class told CBC News the priest inappropriately touched them.
Alfred Martijn describes that year as a miserable one, filled with fear and unease. In those days, it was mandatory for the prep students to be boarders, so it was difficult to elude Epoch.
“When you are confronted with something that’s totally foreign to your upbringing, it’s more than a shock,” said Martijn, who was 13 at the time of the alleged abuse.
“You don’t know how to handle it. You just don’t know. And what takes over is fear. You are governed by fear. It’s as simple as that.”
Confiding in his parents was not an option, Martijn said, as they believed the Jesuits could do no wrong.
He also couldn’t bring up the alleged abuse with his classmates at school.
“How do you talk to anybody about it? You don’t,” said Martijn, now 77, in a video interview from his home in Belgium. “It was just sort of mentioned in passing, ‘Hey, watch out for this guy. He’s weird. He does funny things.'”
Following Epoch’s teaching stint at Loyola, he was assigned to parishes in Nova Scotia and several Indigenous communities in Ontario. After his death in 1986, many of Epoch’s alleged victims came forward to seek financial damages.
To date, the Jesuits have paid hundreds of thousands in compensation and for appropriate assistance to Epoch’s victims.
WATCH | Alfred Martijn describes his fears as a 13-year-old boy:
From retreat house to First Nations community
After several short postings, Epoch was assigned to Jesuit retreat houses in Beaconsfield, Que., a suburb of Montreal, as well as Pickering and Guelph, Ont., between 1963 and 1969.
These homes offered weekend retreats for Catholics. The priests would hear confessions, offer mass and give instructional talks.
Patrick Wall, an American clergy abuse expert, suspects the Jesuits may have used these placements as a way of distancing Epoch from his target population — young boys.
“They have to make that funnel smaller and smaller, where they try to make it almost impossible for him to reoffend,” said Wall.
The Jesuits of Canada denied any particular significance to Epoch being moved to these homes.
In 1969, Epoch was assigned to be the priest in Wikwemikong First Nation, on Manitoulin Island in Northern Ontario.
This is not surprising, said Wall, as the entire church system was under attack and the Jesuits did not have enough priests to staff parishes.
“He’s an ordained priest who is breathing, so they sent him to the most vulnerable people that they have,” said Wall. “It’s horrendous.”
Lawyer John Tamming represented dozens of Epoch’s alleged victims in Ontario. Most of them were from the Saugeen First Nation or Cape Croker, which is located north of Owen Sound. Cape Croker is now called the Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation.
Epoch was the parish priest in those communities between 1971 and 1983.
“The extent of the damage he caused is truly staggering,” said Tamming.
“It’s abuse upon abuse because all of the parents of my clients were residential school survivors.”
Epoch’s personnel file was never disclosed, Tamming said.
He was told by one of the Jesuit lawyers that a large part of it was missing, which he found suspicious, as it may have included oblique references to inappropriate behaviour in the 1940s, 50s and 60s.
The Jesuits of Canada said any documents related to Epoch and his assignments were produced during discovery. The religious order said it is not aware of any counsel ever having been advised that files were lost.
‘It’s something that’s lived with me forever’
Bob Lemieux was in the same class as Martijn at Loyola High School. At first, Epoch treated him nicely and praised his work, Lemieux recalled.
In hindsight, Lemieux wonders if he was being groomed.
One day, Epoch took him into a classroom alone and forcibly kissed him and forced his tongue into his mouth, he said.
The incident sent him into a panic. When Lemieux returned home on the weekends, he cried and pleaded with his parents not to send him back.
“I was petrified,” said Lemieux, 77, who now lives outside of Kalamazoo, Mich. “It’s something that’s lived with me forever.”
His parents brushed off his protests. Lemieux figures they probably thought he just didn’t like boarding school. He also grew up in an era where the Jesuits were trusted implicitly.
He did his best to steer clear of Epoch after that, but lived in constant fear, knowing he was vulnerable if Epoch threatened him with more sexual advances.
A gifted hockey player who played in the junior ranks and briefly with the Oakland Seals in the NHL, Lemieux said it’s probably no accident that he developed a reputation as a tough guy.
Decades later, when he heard about the lawsuits in Ontario, he contacted the lawyer and offered to testify. But the cases were settled out of court.
“I wanted to make sure he was punished for his actions,” said Lemieux, who has no doubt the Jesuits were aware of Epoch’s behaviour at Loyola.
Now, he wants to hold the church accountable.
“It’s time for me, as long as I’m alive, in the time I have left, I have to try and put my foot down and call these people out,” said Lemieux, who is still religious.
“We can no longer accept lame duck excuses.”
Calls for accountability
Martijn’s motivation in coming forward is grounded in a similar desire to see the church make meaningful changes.
Frustrated by what he perceived as the church’s failure to tackle clergy sexual abuse, he shared his experience about Epoch with his classmates at their 55th school reunion in 2018.
The following year, the Jesuits of Canada hired a firm to comb through their personnel files for credible allegations of abuse dating back 60 years and pledged to release a list of priest’s names. Martijn contacted them with his story.
“I just wanted to be rid of this ghost which was haunting me,” said Martijn, who recounted three distinct incidents where Epoch allegedly touched him inappropriately.
Like Lemieux, he was invited to meet with Epoch alone, ostensibly to discuss his report card. Martijn said Epoch would lock the door from the inside and ask him to sit on his lap.
On weekends, the classroom building was normally deserted, so screaming was pointless, said Martijn.
It was also difficult to physically deflect Epoch’s relentless advances as he was a big man.
“You’re only a 13-year-old kid. You don’t even weigh 50 kilos, you don’t have a chance. When he wrapped himself around you, there was no question of resistance,” said Martijn.
One day, he bit down on Epoch’s lip so hard when the priest tried to kiss him, blood was spurting everywhere.
“He was struggling to get me off and he was pushing me and pushing me and hitting me on the head with his fist to get off, but I was so scared, I didn’t want to let go,” said Martijn. He recalls Epoch sported a fat lip for quite a while due to the injury.
Epoch never approached him again, but Martijn said the priest singled him out in class. Martijn developed a rebellious streak and, within a few months, got a reputation as a troublemaker and poor student. Throughout his teens, Martijn struggled with self doubt and avoided physical intimacy.
Jesuits urge victims to reach out
When asked about the abuse allegations, Loyola High School said it was aware of Epoch’s “devastating history of sexual abuse” in other communities due to media reports.
In the 1950s, the school was directly administered by the Jesuits.
“Any accusations at the time would have been brought to their attention, and subsequent records would similarly be held by the Jesuits,” said Loyola High School’s principal, Mark Diachyshyn.
Diachyshyn said the safety and security of Loyola’s students is of the utmost importance. There are now strict legal procedures in place when it comes to reporting a suspected incident of child abuse.
The Jesuits of Canada declined an interview request. In an email, spokesperson José Sánchez said that as soon as abuse allegations in Ontario surfaced in the 1990s, the religious order’s lawyers examined the Jesuits’ records for previous complaints.
Epoch taught at Loyola between 1947-1949 and again, after he was ordained, from 1954-1958.
“There is nothing in the Jesuit files that indicates that any complaint was ever made against Fr. George Epoch, who appeared to have been a popular teacher at Loyola,” Sanchez said.
Although a few people alleged they suffered abuse in Halifax and at retreat houses in Ontario, most of Epoch’s victims came from First Nation communities where the priest lived by himself, outside of a Jesuit community.
“It had been somewhat naively assumed that Epoch would be less likely to take advantage of young people in affluent urban communities where he would have been living in a Jesuit community,” Sanchez said.
“This does not appear to have been a correct assumption.”
Sanchez said the Jesuits first realized there might be potential victims from Loyola in 2018 when CBC published an article about sex abuse allegations in Halifax that included a photo of Epoch in front of Loyola High School around 1958.
The Jesuits confirmed one student from Loyola later contacted them about his alleged experience with Epoch. The order was not aware of any further victims until contacted by CBC.
“Given the subsequent incidents of abuse which have been substantiated in other communities, we sincerely hope that anyone who experienced harm will reach out to us,” said Sanchez.
Every candidate that now applies to the Jesuits undergoes a psychological evaluation. If admitted, they are continually evaluated at key points during their training to gauge their personal development and suitability for the priesthood, Sanchez said.
Although the Jesuits promised to release the names of priests accused of sexual abuse by January 2021, the audit was postponed because the archives were closed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Work began again in August, but there is no date for completion yet.
Martijn hopes the audit will lead to a system that will expedite complaints of wrongdoing — otherwise, it’s a waste of time and money.
“The only way to break through the culture of silence is to educate the people who have been harmed to come forward so that they know that they have a voice,” said Martijn.
Support is available for anyone affected by this report. You can talk to a mental health professional via Wellness Together Canada by calling 1-866-585-0445 or text WELLNESS to 686868 for youth or 741741 for adults. It is free and confidential.