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Closing arguments in Winnipeg trial of retired priest charged with indecent assault

WINNIPEG — A Winnipeg judge is left to decide whether a young girl was assaulted in the bathroom of a residential school more than 50 years ago based on the memories of the now-adult woman and the 93-year-old retired priest accused of committing the act. 
Arthur Masse leaves court at the Law Courts building in Winnipeg, Tuesday, March 7, 2023. Closing arguments in the trial of a retired priest accused of assaulting a First Nations woman while she was a student at a former residential school are expected to begin this morning in Winnipeg. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Brittany Hobson

WINNIPEG — A Winnipeg judge is left to decide whether a young girl was assaulted in the bathroom of a residential school more than 50 years ago based on the memories of the now-adult woman and the 93-year-old retired priest accused of committing the act. 

The two-day judge-alone trial wrapped up Wednesday for Arthur Masse who is charged with one count of indecent assault against Victoria McIntosh from when she attended the Fort Alexander Residential School north of Winnipeg sometime between 1968 and 1970.

McIntosh and Masse were the only witnesses called to testify. 

The question of memory accuracy came up when Manitoba Court of King's Bench Justice Candace Grammond heard closing arguments from the Crown and George Green, Masse's lawyer. 

Green argued the burden of proof falls heavily on McIntosh's testimony, "that is hard to discharge on the word of one person."

He added that given the nature of the allegations, passage of time and inconsistencies in McIntosh's testimony, the court cannot deem her a reliable witness. 

"Ms. McIntosh's evidence standing on its own falls short on proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt," he said. 

GRAPHIC WARNING: The following details may disturb some readers. 

McIntosh recounted details of the alleged assault during her testimony on Tuesday. She told the court she was in the bathroom at the school when she heard someone enter. Masse could frequently be seen entering the student bathrooms while he worked at the school, McIntosh told court. 

She said she recognized it was Masse because of his collar. 

McIntosh testified Masse held her against a wall in the bathroom 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, she told court. 

The First Nations woman said the alleged assault lasted approximately a minute and afterward Masse told her not to tell anyone. 

"I was scared and nauseated at the same time. I slipped away from him and I ran out of there," she told court.

McIntosh first reported the assault to police in 2015 two years after a meeting regarding a residential school settlement claim triggered memories for her. She admitted she tried to forget Masse's name but she always knew what happened to her. 

Masse testified that he did not assault McIntosh and said he has no recollection of interacting with her when she was a student. 

Green said the court is relying on evidence from someone who was a child at the time of the assault and that McIntosh's testimony isn't without inconsistencies. 

He pointed to conflicting statements made when McIntosh first reported the assault to police and her testimony, including the omission of Masse kissing her when she spoke to police in 2015. 

Green also questioned why the Crown didn't present any other evidence including expert witnesses or other former students who could have spoken about the claims against Masse. 

He said his client testified in a "straightforward manner."

"Evidence is what you expect for a 93-year-old person trying to remember," Green said.

"Court has no reason to question his credibility and sincerity in telling the truth."

Crown attorney Danielle Simard said the court should be concerned about the "unevenness" of Masse's memory of that time. 

Masse has a selective memory and deflected his responsibilities during the time in question, said Simard. The priest testified that as a school administrator, he did not have much interaction with students.

Simard called the notion there would be other students to testify "highly speculative." She also pushed back claims McIntosh was dealing with repressed memory. 

"To suggest that (McIntosh) lost it and regained it is just inaccurate," Simard said. "(McIntosh) made reasonable concessions. She did not exaggerate or embellish."

Green suggested McIntosh is using the allegations and the case, "as a public pedestal to advocate for Indigenous issues."

Outside the courthouse, McIntosh refuted the claims, saying it took her several years to get to a place where she could speak about what happened to her. 

"I always knew in the back of my mind that it was going to come forward some way," she said. 

The judge has reserved her decision until March 30. 

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 March 8, 2023. 

Brittany Hobson, The Canadian Press

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