ROME—A prominent cardinal who has been short listed as pope in the last two conclaves has been accused of sexual abuse by a former intern. Cardinal Marc Ouellet, who most recently accompanied Pope Francis on his apostolic voyage of penance to Canada, has been accused of massaging, kissing and groping the buttock of a 23-year old female who was his pastoral intern in 2008.

The accusation is part of two class-action lawsuits brought by 193 victims against 116 members of the Brothers of the Christian Schools of Francophone Canada on Tuesday. A judge in Quebec has already authorized the suits to go forward, prompting the Arsenault Dufresne Wee Avocats law firm of Montreal to present documentation, including accusations against Ouellet.

The prominent Canadian cardinal is named in the first of the two lawsuits, which accuses another 87 prelates and staff at the school of rampant abuse. The woman who accuses Ouellet is identified only as “F.” in the brief.

The alleged victim described Ouellet as being the “most important person in the diocese” at the time they met at a dinner at the Sisters of Charity in Beauport, Quebec in August 2008. At some point after the dinner, F. said Ouellet massaged her shoulders and back, which left her “frozen in the face of this intrusion and didn’t know how to react,” the lawsuit states.

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A few months later, F. said Ouellet kissed her cheek and hugged her with “familiarity, even though they had only seen each other once or twice before, and held her firmly against him, caressing her back with his hands.”

Two years later, in 2010, the lawsuit alleges Ouellet told her that he could hug and kiss her again because there is “no harm in spoiling yourself a little.” It was at that time he “slid his hand along F.’s back to her buttocks,” according to the suit. “That day, more than during previous meetings, F. understood that she must flee Cardinal Marc Ouellet as much as possible. The uneasiness she feels is more present than ever.”

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Then 25, the alleged victim said she complained about the cardinal’s unwanted advances but was rebuked, told that he was just “very friendly” and that she was by no means the first or only woman to have this sort of “problem” with the high-ranking cleric.

It would be 10 years later, in 2020, when F. said she started having flashbacks during a sexual assault training session and then understood that Ouellet’s advances “constitute non-consensual touching of a sexual nature and therefore, sexual assault.”

Before joining the lawsuit, F. said she wrote to Pope Francis personally as she watched Ouellet’s trajectory advance in the Holy see. She was told that the matter was assigned to Father Jacques Servais, but, according to the lawsuit, that to date “no conclusion concerning the complaints against Cardinal Marc Ouellet has been transmitted to F.”

The Vatican did not immediately respond to a request for a comment about Ouellet or Francis’ reaction to the lawsuit.

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The head of Canada’s survivor network, known as SNAP, said the latest accusation was predictable. “Ouellet oversees the Dicastery of Bishops, meaning he’s the guy picking new Bishops. What hope do we have for leadership in the church?” Leona Huggins, leader of SNAP Vancouver, said in a statement. “We also must question who among the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops knew of his behavior and said nothing? Did some of them want to, but were afraid it would have repercussions on their career? Imagine then what it would be like for victims to step forward.”

It is unclear if Ouellet will face a similar fate as Cardinal George Pell, another high-ranking cardinal who was removed from his duties while the investigation into his alleged sexual assault played out in court. Pell was convicted and later acquitted of historic sex abuse and remains a close confidante of Pope Francis in Rome.

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