COMMENTARY: A time of reckoning for Newfoundland and Labrador’s Roman Catholic churches and parishioners

Saltwire Network [Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada]

March 16, 2022

By Glen Whiffen

Will faith without buildings be all that’s left for the faithful?

I know a lot of people in Newfoundland and Labrador who profess to be Roman Catholic. Many of them good friends, some are former partners, some are work colleagues, some are teammates and some are acquaintances.

Great people. Kind, real.

I’ve also, off and on as a reporter for 30 years, covered the physical and sexual abuse cases of Christian Brothers and priests who destroyed young boys’ lives — right from the Hughes Inquiry to the actual trials of the Mount Cashel Christian Brothers and priests in the early 1990s.

I’ve also met, spoke with and interviewed a number of victims — mostly men, and mostly still young men at the time, with their hearts and lives torn apart. Watched them crumble in front of me.

Some I still speak to from time to time. They are still struggling. A few ended up in court themselves over the years, and I’ve covered their cases. Some struggle with mental health and addiction issues. Some made great attempts to leave it all behind and have normal lives — a family and children even.

Some succeeded, some failed miserably. Some committed suicide.

Those men — who as children found themselves as orphans due to one tragic circumstance or another, being without choice or option — were placed in the care of Christian Brothers, carrying the deep trauma of losing the security of their family life with them.

So many broken lives should have been put on the path to being mended by the people charged with carrying out God’s work.

We all know the terrible crimes that happened inside the walls of Mount Cashel Orphanage. I shudder thinking of the things I heard in court.

Instead of receiving love, support and teaching, those children became prey with no escape from the opportunistic pedophiles who lurked in plain sight amidst the ranks of the lay order and the priesthood.

After the crimes were exposed by some of the brave boys themselves, there were a string of attempted coverups under church influence by police, government members, and some media — that’s a whole other sad tale.

The wait

Then began the long years of excruciating frustration and waiting for justice and compensation.

I’ve followed the great legal battles the Roman Catholic Church has waged, not just here, but in other jurisdictions around the world, in court, defending the pedophiles, forcing the victims to relive the horrors, delaying compensation under the guise of battling it out with insurance companies, governments or claiming lay orders were independent.

The latest court battle in this province for compensation involves Mount Cashel victims of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s which has lasted more than 20 years, and is still playing out now that the church has been forced to pay. Some of the victims — now elderly men — fear they won’t live long enough to see compensation. Some have already died. Of old age.

Telegram reporter Barb Sweet has done incredible work covering this story, and her articles are available on SaltWire Network’s website.

Good people

And now back to the good Catholic people; people striving to do good in the world, wanting to practice and pass along the traditions of their faith to their own children. But will their church buildings still be around in which to practice their faith?

In the St. John’s area, Catholic Church-owned property is being offered for sale, including the magnificent landmark Basilica of St. John the Baptist, opened in 1855.

“Nothing has been held back,” a lawyer representing the RC Episcopal Corp. said recently. (A deal has been struck to exclude cemeteries, and is awaiting court approval.)

Catholics are being told if they want a place to practice their faith they should fundraise, take out a mortgage and buy back individual parish properties — betting that faith is strong enough, surely, to not let the Basilica be turned into condominiums.

In recent days I’ve read social media posts and letters to the editor from long-time faithful Catholics who are upset and disillusioned by what they describe as the coldness of the leadership of the archdiocese and the Roman Catholic Church in general.

Imagine what has been spent over the decades defending the Christian Brothers and priests, and there are still big legal bills to pay as the RC Episcopal Corp. of St. John’s works its way through the bankruptcy and insolvency process.

Still passing the blame

Updates to parishioners from the archdiocese always seem to emphasize the point that it’s the courts that determined “the archdiocese was vicariously liable for the claims of abuse.”

In other words, it’s the courts forcing this — blame them.

Another update to the faithful referenced a recent parish bulletin, which said: “Consider the Bible story and how it relates to us. Jesus was isolated and alone in the wilderness for 40 days and nights. He fasted. He was challenged by negative forces of the world and he overcame them, staying true to God’s word and denying the material. How transformative was that experience for Him? Can we be transformed by our struggles?”

“Our struggles”? What about the victims?

“Negative forces of the world”? What about the crimes of the church’s own representatives?

After all the inquiries, court decisions and promises to help the victims heal, what has changed in the attitude and approach of the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church?

I don’t see it, but then I’m not a member. Maybe there are those who do.

The Telegram published a photo back when reporter Barb Sweet was covering the case in Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court of Appeal in March 2019.

We couldn’t identify the victims, but the photo shows their hands — no longer those of young boys, but of elderly men — victims who once again had made their way to court still hoping for justice a lifetime later.

A higher power

But perhaps there’s a higher court, with swifter action. The Catholic Church preaches of one.

In the Bible, Matthew 18:6 is attributed to Jesus: “but whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.”

I’d say most good Catholics don’t agree with the way the Roman Catholic Church has handled this horrible situation over the years. When government representatives are found to be doing wrong or going against the will of the people, they are voted out. When the heads of business or organizations are not showing true leadership, they are replaced.

Maybe Catholics should demand sweeping changes, totally re-organizing and improving the leadership structure, so the church can get back to the work it was meant to do.

Or maybe the good Catholic people are tired, soured, detached by the weight of it all.

Times are changing, with many faith congregations seeming to be decreasing rapidly. Maybe the days of physical church buildings are coming to an end.

Faith is not contingent on buildings, after all.

And perhaps the realization that most of the money from the sale of local Catholic properties will be used to pay long-overdue compensation claims for victims may be of some comfort and closure for good Catholic people.

In my mind, I still see that Telegram photo. The victims sitting and waiting, the court process beyond their control, just like their young lives were all those years ago.

They are tired, too, their hearts hardened from the constant pushback, their hands empty, despite having to carry the abuse and trauma for so many years.

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