MONTREAL – A group of women have been gathering outside a Catholic church in the Kanieneckeha:ka (Mohawk) community of Kahnawake, near Montreal, every Sunday for months.
They want the remains of a certain priest to be moved to the grounds of the church from where he is buried, and somewhere outside their community.
This is because the priest sexually abused the local children, they say.
It was hearing about other graves across the country, one woman said – unmarked graves of indigenous children – that inspired her to speak up about something that is so public, and an unwanted presence for many.
“It brought me back to my own trauma,” said Patricia Kanient Stacy.
“Father Lajoi violated me not once but many times. I was an innocent child. He was a priest. “
The priest, Father Leon Lajoie, has been buried on the grounds of the Church of Saint-François-Xavier since 1999.
Stacy said that in addition to the unmarked graves, the recent relevance of others in Kahnawake also inspired the group to come together.
She said that the abuse started when she was 10 years old.
The women in the group say they have now heard similar allegations from 20 community members, but say most are afraid to speak in public.
But opposition to Father Lajoie’s resting place is also not new, said Melissa Montour-Lazare.
When the priest died in 1999, some women opposed the decision to bury him there, she said, especially since some people in Kahnawake did not have the same right to death.
“At the same time there [were] Women here were being denied the right to be buried here, making it even more controversial,” Montour-Lazare said.
In late August, the group met with representatives of the Mohawk Council and the Jesuit order.
In a statement this week, the Jesuits said they were “grateful” to those who brought the allegations to their attention and that they were taking these allegations seriously.
They are in the process of meeting in person with those involved, he said, but also recognize that the grave issue may need to be resolved before the allegations can be properly investigated.
“we […] The Jesuits said, being open to all possible solutions that could result in healing and reconciliation.
“It appears that a meaningful investigation of complaints may be impossible without addressing this issue.”
He also said he had searched church documents to launch an investigation into the matter, but would follow a larger process set out by his order to investigate complaints of abuse.
“The Jesuits have conducted a thorough search of archival records belonging to Fr. Lajoie. We did not find any correspondence that complained of boundary violations or abuses during his long career as a Jesuit priest,” he said.
The final decision on the cemetery, in fact, does not lie with the church – it seems to lie with the Mohawk Council of Kahnawa: K.
Protesters say little action has been taken on the question since the council’s August meeting.
Grand Chief Kahsenhave told Granthshala that it is a sensitive issue in the community and should not be rushed to find a solution.
She says the council is starting a consultation process with community members.
But Montour-Lazare says he believes it is political and always has been.
“The church is playing power politics,” she said.
“Being the legitimate authority here between the church and the band council, whatever is happening is just disgusting and it never stopped.”
Stacey says it’s hard to let go of her trauma, especially because some people in the community don’t believe in her.
But she plans to continue the protest as long as it takes time.