Canada: pressure on Catholic church to compensate victims of residential schools abuses

The Guardian [London, England]

August 10, 2021

By Leyland Cecco

  • Scale of church’s assets revealed in string of investigations
  • Discovery of unmarked graves prompts fresh reparations calls

From the 19th century until the 1990s, more than 150,000 Indigenous children were obliged to attend state-funded schools in a campaign to forcibly assimilate them into Canadian society. More than half were run by the Catholic church. Disease and hunger were rife at the schools, and survivors have described physical and sexual abuse, often at the hands of priests and Catholic laypeople.

In 2006, the landmark Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement was approved by all parties – including survivors, the federal government and religious institutions.

A recent report by the Independent Assessment Process found that nearly C$3bn had been paid out by the federal government as part of settlement, including direct compensation to survivors and funding for healing programs.

The Anglican, United and Presbyterian churches have all fully paid the agreed upon amount.

The Catholic church initially agreed to make a C$29m payment to programs directly benefiting survivors, but little of that has actually been paid out.

The Kamloops residential school, where the remains of 215 children were found in May. Photograph: Dennis Owen/Reuters
The Kamloops residential school, where the remains of 215 children were found in May. Photograph: Dennis Owen/Reuters

The church has blamed weak fundraising efforts. In 2015, church officials told a court they raised a total of C$3.9m for residential school survivors, according to documents obtained by CBC News.

Over roughly that same time period, however, the church raised funds totalling C$300m for the construction of new church buildings, including elaborate cathedrals.

At the same time, the Catholic church used money allocated for survivors to pay loans, administrative costs – and C$2.7m on lawyers.

“The problem with financial remuneration is you get all these bloodsuckers that sweep in,” said Rob Talach, an Ontario-based lawyer who has represented victims assaulted by Catholic clergy. “And so you never get the money down to the grassroots level.”

None of the other churches involved in the settlement had difficulties paying the agreed upon amount for compensation.

A new investigation from the Globe and Mail suggests the holdings of the Catholic church exceed C$4bn – and that its aggregate charitable revenues make it the largest charity in the country.

Talach called the Globe’s reporting of church assets “conservative”, pointing out that a number of dioceses have money in arms-length charitable foundations.

“The church isn’t stupid,” he said. “They’ve got money spread all over the place.”

High-ranking church officials have done little to help the mounting criticism of the organization. In June, Archbishop Richard Gagnon said in a homily that Catholics were facing “a lot of exaggerations”, likening the intense focus on the church to “persecution”.

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The church’s healthy financial position has also come under scrutiny amid concerns that the nationwide search for more unmarked graves is likely to cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Murray Sinclair, the former head of the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, previously told the Guardian the costs associated with the search would far exceed the $27m allocated by the federal government.

A new petition calling for the church to lose its tax-exempt status now has 17,000 signatures.

“Suspension of charitable status will send a clear message and provide the Catholic Church time to reflect on what it means to be charitable, to issue a sincere and full apology, to fully cooperate with making all residential school records available and at a minimum pay reparations that were promised years ago, and ideally more,” wrote David Thomson, the petition’s creator.

Talach, who has spent decades in courts battling the church, said: “Their penance might be that they’re going to finally start having to pay their own way.”