The Catholic Church’s Last Chance

Suing the Catholic Church is like throwing Jello at the wall, it’s a mess but not much sticks.

Thousands of Canada’s First Nations, Metis, Inuit and Inuvialuit joined in a class action seeking compensation for the abuse they suffered in Canada’s residential schools.

On Nov 20, 2005, this class action was settled in the largest payout in Canadian history.

The federal government agreed to pay $1.9 billion to claimants who attended residential schools prior to Dec 31, 1997—and while $1.9 billion sounds like a lot of money it works out to about $24,000 per survivor.  Survivors who suffered egregious abuse retained the right to make claims for additional compensation.


Children at a residential school

The feds also agreed to establish the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, endow the Aboriginal Healing Foundation and fund the commemoration of the “legacy of Indian Residential Schools”.

The Anglican, Catholic, United and Presbyterian churches agreed to a financial settlement.  All but the Catholic Church fulfilled their part of the bargain.

The Catholic bargain

The Settlement Agreement obligated 50 Catholic entities to pay out $79 million as follows:

  • $25 million in unspecified “in kind” services – the entities delivered the full $25 million
  • $29 million in cash to be paid into the Aboriginal Healing Foundation – the entities delivered $27.4 million arguing that the remaining $1.6 million was eaten up by legal and administrative fees
  • $25 million from a national fund raising campaign – the entities raised $3.7 million, $21.3 million is still owing

Bottom line: the Catholic entities agreed to pay $79 million.  They paid $56.1 million.  They’re $22.9 million short and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

How did this happen?

The Catholic Church

The Catholic Church is the largest Christian institution in the world but does not exist as a legal entity.   

It is led by the Pope, who takes his place in the hierarchy first set down by Jesus.  The Pope is the head of the College of Bishops.  The College of Bishops is made up of individual bishops who are responsible for a diocese.  The diocese is made up of a number of parishes which are led by a priest.

(Certain bishops are elevated to the College of Cardinals who advise the Pope and select the Pope’s successor when he dies.  This is a never ending source of intrigue for all concerned).

Brothers, nuns, hermits and friars live in communities organized according to Rome’s rules.  They do God’s work and are not part of the official hierarchy.

As recently as 1997 God’s work included running residential schools.


Pope Francis and the children

Given that the Catholic Church is not a legal entity the Settlement Agreement was signed by a hodge podge of incorporated and unincorporated entities including Episcopale corporations, bishops, dioceses, oblates (lay people and priest spreading the gospel) and nuns.

Other than delivering the required $25 million for “in kind” services, the Catholic entities fell far short of their financial obligations.

“Miscommunication” and “best efforts”

The federal government sued the Catholic entities to make them to cough up more cash.  Along the way the feds made a mistake.

There was a “miscommunication” between the government and church lawyers which a Saskatchewan court said released the Catholic entities from their outstanding $56.1 million financial obligations in return for the payment of a paltry $1.2 million.

Lawyers for the survivors could argue that Catholic entities’ lawyer took unfair advantage of the government lawyer or that the government lawyer’s screw up should not bind the survivors.

Lawyers for the Catholic entities could argue they met their “best efforts” obligation to raise $25 million by running a professional Canada-wide fund raising campaign for seven years and even though it was a fiasco the Catholic Entities Church Agreement specifically states that not raising the $25 million, in and of itself, is not a default under the agreement.

Lawyers could argue a lot of things but that would simply reinforce the survivors’ view that the Catholic Church is not sincere about reconciliation.

Moral Imperative

William Gladdis said you get the law in this world and justice in the next.

The Catholic Church seems to agree with him.

The fact the Church acknowledged it harmed the children entrusted to its care and is now standing on its legal rights to avoid compensating the survivors is nothing short of tragic.

But the Church has one last chance to redeem itself.

Perry Bellegarde, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, is going to ask the Pope to apologise for the Church’s role in residential schools and to rectify the Church’s failure to fix it.

Soon we shall find out whether the Pope will bring justice to the survivors in this world or make them wait until they reach the next one.


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11 Responses to The Catholic Church’s Last Chance

  1. Linda Pushor says:

    Susan, as someone who who built a database of Canadian Catholic Clergy abusers and who has followed this issue closely for over 15 years, I can assure you that if the Catholic Church lives up to its obligations, it will because it will be dragged kicking and screaming. Various orders and dioceses have shifted assets and then declared bankruptcy, under dubious circumstances, in order to avoid payments to survivors. If there is one thing that church sexual abuse survivors can count on , it is for the church to avoid doing the right thing if it can avoid or evade it.

    • Linda, your description of the Catholic Church bobbing and weaving to avoid its responsibilities sounds very much like what was depicted in the movie Spotlight. It’s shameful. I really hoped the new Pope would address these abuse claims properly but so far not much has happened. That’s why I included the sunny photo of the Pope with the two small children. It provided a fitting contrast to the stark photo of the aboriginal children at the residential school.

  2. Brent McFadyen says:

    The movie ” The Shoes of the Fisherman” I think portrayed a Pope that wanted to use the churches riches to relive the plight of the poor. The Catholic Church made short order of that Pope in the movie. Art imitates life.

    • Brent, I tried to find out how rich the Church is. It’s impossible. To give Pope Francis some credit he’s trying to introduce greater transparency around the Church’s finances. The Vatican started publishing financial reports in 2013. The 2014 report indicates that the Vatican Bank holds $3.6 billion in assets with 90% being in government bonds. Here’s a link on this topic:
      The cover page of the 2014 report includes this quote by Pope Francis “Money must serve, not rule”. Hopefully the Pope will remember this when Perry Bellegarde, the National Chief of the AFN, asks him for help with the $56.1 million shortfall in support to the survivors of residential schools.

  3. Carlos Beca says:

    ‘Lawyers could argue a lot of things but that would simply reinforce the survivors’ view that the Catholic Church is not sincere about reconciliation.’

    This sentence caught my attention.
    Has the Catholic Church ever been sincere about anything?

    They call it the House of God. My goodness I cannot imagine what kind of God created this total degeneration of spiritual belief, goodness and decency.
    In the end they are the ones who get away with murder. Yes murder, the history of the papacy is one of sexual promiscuity, murder and greed. No wonder they are not a legal entity – can they be one?
    These are the people that consider atheists the most serious problem of our society.
    I can understand why. They are the only ones that can bring them down without fearing any consequences.

  4. Carlos, the contradictions inherent in the Catholic Church boggle the mind. The requirement that priests remain celibate is a classic example. The Catholic Answers web site says that St Paul “forbade celibacy as a mark of false religion” and yet was “the cause of the whole thing”. The article goes on to defend celibacy by characterizing “mainstream American culture” which questions the need for celibacy as the “post-Christian Cult of the Pig”. The article would be humorous but for the fact the author is dead serious. Not surprisingly, he makes no mention of the Church’s history of sexual abuse.
    Here’s the link:

    • Carlos Beca says:

      Susan thank you for the article. It is a good article but I am not sure why in 2016 we are still debating this issue of celibacy. Interesting that we are so good at criticizing burqas and niqabs but we rarely look at ourselves in terms of our own medieval ideas.
      Look at this sentence from the article

      Though he is concerned about that division of heart, Paul denies that marriage is a sin. He merely insists that it is a lesser state in life than consecrated celibacy: “So that he who marries his betrothed does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better” (1 Cor. 7:38).

      ‘A lesser state in life than consecrated celibacy’

      So 99% of us are in a lesser state of life than the pedophile priests that escaped the rule of law and have been protected by their superiors.

      Who cares what Paul thought 2000 years ago? This is good historically and for those who believe in it. I have no problem with anyone choosing to be celibate but please do not extend your tentacles to my kids when your mental will is not great enough to control your physical cravings. If you do, you will pay the price just like any other pedophile in the land.

      Unfortunately the sexual abuse is hidden, it is reluctantly accepted by the church leaders including the pope and it is not taken very seriously by the civil authorities. If it was, many high level leaders in the Catholic Church would be in jail.

  5. Carlos, this article, like so many others, is frustrating because it’s based on unsubstantiated assumptions. For example how can one assume Jesus was celibate or that Paul’s thinking is similar to that of Jesus? Wikipedia says the Christian bible contains between 66 to 81 books depending on the religious group you’re talking about. Someone somewhere decided what to include and what to exclude from whatever version of the bible is the “correct” version at a certain point in time. Others translated and re-translated this version over the centuries and priests, preachers and con men interpret this version as they see fit. I need to stop there before I say something too inflammatory. Suffice it to say that good people live good lives regardless of (or maybe in spite of) what some religious authority tells them is “the word of God”.

  6. GoinFawr says:

    “As recently as 1997 God’s work included running residential schools.”
    That is just appalling.

    “The vision of Christ that thou dost see, is my vision’s greatest enemy.”-He Who Talks Loudly Saying Nothing (quoting William Blake)

  7. Pingback: Monday Pick-Me-Up « Legal Sourcery

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