The remains of a priest alleged to have sexually abused children have been exhumed and removed from the Mohawk territory of Kahnawake, months after community members voted on the issue in a contentious referendum.

The Mohawk Council of Kahnawake, which governs the First Nations territory south of Montreal, said the remains of Rev. Léon Lajoie, who died in 1999, were exhumed Wednesday from St. Francis-Xavier Mission, a church in the community were Lajoie worked and was buried.

“It was important to remind ourselves, as a community, that this has been a difficult and emotional issue," the council said in a written statement. "It was important to carry out the relocation in the respectful and dignified manner that a solemn occasion such as this deserves. As a collective, we must continue to find the path towards true healing."

Last summer, several members of the community alleged that they were abused by Lajoie and called for his remains to be removed to start a healing process.

Melissa Montour-Lazare, the spokeswoman for the group demanding the exhumation, says the removal of the remains was liberating for those who say they were abused by Lajoie.

"It's their closure," she said in an interview Thursday. "Knowing that he's gone and when they pass (by), they're not going to see people laying flowers on his grave and talking like he was this great person … I think that they can begin their healing process now."

In March, members of the community voted 233 to 195 in favour of the exhumation.

Montour-Lazare said that the referendum was a difficult, "victim-shaming" process.

"When they had enough courage to come forward and say this publicly, they were put to a referendum to say 'yes' or 'no,' we believe you or we don't believe you, in essence," she said.

The exhumation of the priest's remains faced resistance from the band council and members of the parish, Montour-Lazare said.

For Montour-Lazare, the exhumation is part of the reconciliation process. "If you want to start making things right here, this is what it entails. It entails actions, not empty promises, like we've been hearing since Day 1," she said.

Montour-Lazare said the larger process of reconciliation includes the acknowledgment last month by Pope Francis that genocide took place at residential schools.

"This removal of this priest, it was part of that reconciliation. Actions speak louder than words and, in this case, money does not fix anything; you can't undo what was done," Montour-Lazare said.

Lajoie, a Jesuit, arrived in Kahnawake in 1961 and was a parish priest until 1990.

The Jesuits of Canada issued a statement Wednesday that they would be "welcoming home one of their own to his intended resting spot."

"Respect for human remains are deep spiritual beliefs in both Catholic and Indigenous cultures. The repatriation of Fr. Leon Lajoie’s remains has been planned in consultation with the Mohawk Council of Kahnawà:ke, the community and the Parish Council of St. Francis-Xavier Mission. We have faith that the repatriation will lead to a peaceful solution to this situation and promote healing in the community of Kahnawà:ke."

An investigation commissioned by the Jesuits found no evidence of abuse by Lajoie. However, the private investigation firm hired by the religious order concluded that a "serious sexual assault" took place between 1976 and 1979 at St. Francis-Xavier Mission.

In March, the Jesuits said the report didn't "clear all allegations" against Lajoie and that further investigation would be conducted.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 11, 2022.