Nuns Accused Of Systematic Abuse -- Quebec `Orphans' Were Classified Retarded For Subsidies, Suits Claim

MONTREAL - In a dark episode of Quebec's postwar history, as many as 8,000 children were falsely declared mentally retarded and then mentally, physically and sexually abused by nuns who ran the orphanages where they lived, according to hundreds who have claimed to be victims.

The alleged misdeeds occurred in the 1940s and '50s, when the Roman Catholic Church dominated Canada's French-speaking province, and they remained a secret for 40 years. But in the last year, the orphans - as they are called here, although most were illegitimate children - have begun speaking out.

In mid-March, a group saying it represents 4,000 orphans took the first legal steps toward filing class-action suits against the Quebec government and the Catholic orders that ran six orphanages, demanding compensation of $1.2 billion. A few days later, a band of orphans marched on Quebec City to demand a government inquiry. Their charges also have sparked a six-month criminal investigation that is to conclude this month.

The accused religious orders have said they will not respond specifically until the judicial process gets under way. However, a spokeswoman said it is important to view the charges in the context of the period. Nuns cared for thousands of abandoned children with dedication and few resources, she said. Perhaps there were some nuns who lost their patience, perhaps some children became mentally ill because of the rigors of life in an institution. But it is

unthinkable, she said, that a group of people dedicated to serving the needy could have been that cruel.


Herve Bertrand, who heads the group filing the lawsuits, doesn't find it unthinkable. He finds it unforgettable.

It was March 18, 1955. He was 12, sitting in his classroom in Mont Providence when a nun stood before the class and said the words that would change his life:

"From this day on, you are all mentally retarded."

Bertrand and his classmates would never again, as children, go to school. Instead, they and thousands of others would spend up to 100 hours a week scrubbing floors, painting walls, washing laundry and dishes, cooking, and doing other menial tasks. They also, according to some, would be beaten, tied to beds, dumped into icy baths, placed in straitjackets, given electroshock treatments and sexually abused.

The orphans and their advocates think Quebec's government knew normal children had been reclassified as mentally retarded. They think it was done so the religious orders could collect a larger subsidy from the province.

The orphans, who were released in the early 1960s, are now in their 40s and 50s. A few have managed to put their past behind them.

Many say they feel nearly everything cherished in life - childhood joys, an education, skills for work, the ability to relate to other people, even physical well-being - was stolen from them.

"What we want, all of us, is a public apology," said Yvette Gascon, another orphan.


From 1945-1959, Quebec was ruled by Maurice Duplessis who, through power and patronage, allowed the wealthy English-speaking minority to dominate business and commerce, while the Catholic Church ran the French-language schools and social systems.

At the time, an unmarried woman who became pregnant - contraception was unavailable - could not keep her child. After mothers would give birth in secret, their babies would be cared for by nuns. When they were old enough to go to school, the children were transferred to Catholic orphanages.

At least 20,000 children were kept confined in the late 1940s and early '50s. The nuns were strict and punishment was frequent, according to orphans, but the children were fed and dressed reasonably well, and they were educated.

However, economics intervened. The province paid 75 cents a day to subsidize each orphan - and $2.35 a day to support a mental patient. As the years went by, Quebec grew to have fewer orphans and more mental patients, wrote Pauline Gill in a 1991 book, "Les Enfants de Duplessis."

The orphans' allegations cannot be independently corroborated, but hundreds of them have told the same tale, to Canadian newspapers and television, their lawyers and authors and in lawsuits.

Stan van Duyse, a Montreal doctor who is assisting the plaintiffs, said he was skeptical the first time he would hear of a particular sort of atrocity. But after listening to similar tales from other orphans, he came to believe them.

Nearly all the orphans have said they had to work. At 12, Bertrand said, he washed floors and walls, cooked meals and washed dishes. Talking among the children was not allowed. Neither was eye contact.

The orphans said those who wet their beds were dumped, often with the nuns holding them by the hair, into baths of icy water. Or they were whipped with a paddle with a ball attached on a line. Like many others, Bertrand said he often had to wear a a straitjacket for punishment.

Denis le Coq worked in the kitchen of Mont Providence. For breakfast, he helped make the porridge and the hot chocolate, and cut bread for 1,000 people. For lunch, he prepared the spaghetti, the bologna and the potatoes. For dinner, the same. The nuns, he said, ate much better: steak, fish, grapes, pears. Le Coq worked from 5 a.m. to midnight seven days a week, he says.

Boys who wet their beds were brought to the chapel and lined up against the wall - toes to the molding, heads to the wall. Then, he said, they were ordered to beat their heads and kick their feet against the wall, usually until blood came.

Yvette Gascon, unlike Bertrand and le Coq, was in an institution that also had legitimate mental patients. She and other girls were charged with caring for them.

Gascon said she was the recipient of one of the most brutal punishments. One night, she said, when she got out of bed to go to the bathroom, her bare foot landed on a rodent. She screamed and the other 54 girls in the room awoke, screaming too. The nun who supervised her group ordered Gascon to undress, she said, put her in a straitjacket, took the mattress off Gascon's bed and made her lie on the metal slats. She tied her there and put a pan underneath to catch the girl's waste.

Gascon said she remained on that bed for a month.

On first telling, the story seemed incredible. But van Duyse, the doctor, said he knows of several other women who said girls were tied to their beds for weeks.

Many of the men have said publicly that they were sexually molested, sometimes by the nuns, sometimes by lay orderlies, who were usually young and male.


"What we regret is that individual and isolated facts are being generalized," said Sister Gisele Fortier. "Is it thinkable that we, as religious orders, charged with aiding people, had such terrible policies, that the treatment we gave the children was so awful?"

The nun is the spokeswoman for a committee representing the religious orders named in the suit. She said she has no personal knowledge of whether these abuses were committed. Although the church has asked experts to research the "historical context" of the period, it has not done an internal inquiry into the allegations. That is for Quebec's criminal investigation and the process of justice, Fortier said.

The orphans were released in the early 1960s, after Duplessis had died and a number of investigating commissions had found that Quebec's psychiatric institutions were in deplorable condition.

"What do I put on a job application - 15 years at Mont Providence?" asked le Coq, who has worked in retirement homes but now is unemployed.

Gilles Bourbonniere cannot read or write, although he is 51 and has gone to night school one night a week for three years. When asked what he will do with the money if the orphans win their class-action suit, he says he will go to school four nights a week.

"I'm still a child because of what they did to me," he said.