Newfoundland church sales bring justice to abuse victims—and leave longtime parishioners in need of a new spiritual home.

America [New York NY]

July 29, 2022

By Aloysius Wong

For the first time on this papal visit to Canada, Pope Francis acknowledged the sexual abuse perpetrated by “some of [the] sons and daughters” of the church in Canada, describing them on July 28 as “scandals that require firm action and an irreversible commitment.”

“Together with you, I would like once more to ask forgiveness of all the victims,” he said. “The pain and the shame we feel must become an occasion for conversion: never again!”

The long-awaited moment of institutional remorse for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous survivors of sexual abuse came as Catholics in a part of the country not included on this papal journey continued a difficult path of their own toward reconciliation emerging from another source of national anguish.

In Canada’s Maritime province of Newfoundland, a group of elderly survivors of historical abuse at Mount Cashel Orphanage are finally receiving compensation ordered by a landmark ruling in 2020 that went against the Archdiocese of St. John’s. But to finance the settlement, the archdiocese has had to sell scores of church properties, including some church buildings themselves with histories that trace back generations.

“I grew up in Catholic schools and we were taught the Holy Trinity with the shamrock: home, school and church,” said Patricia Walsh-Warren, a lifetime member of St. Patrick’s Church and a regional organizer for Development and Peace (Caritas Canada), in an interview with America. St. Patrick’s “was our church. Home was home, and school was school. And that was it. Those were the three main components of growing up in St. John’s.”

Ms. Walsh-Warren grew up in the parish along with six siblings. So did her parents, who met at St. Patrick’s. And after she was married there nearly 25 years ago, she continued the tradition by raising her five children at St. Patrick’s as well.

Now St. Patrick’s has been sold to Howard Real Estate Group, whose intentions for the property remain unknown. The sales of 42 other diocesan properties—including a dozen other churches—have so far been approved by the courts.

The sales follow a final appeal to the provincial Supreme Court which found that the archdiocese was “vicariously liable” for sexual abuse perpetrated by certain Irish Christian Brothers decades ago at Mount Cashel Orphanage against the boys in their care. The court ruled that the archdiocese and the brothers at Mount Cashel worked in a sufficiently close relationship that the archdiocese should have better supervised the brothers’ conduct. Its failure to prevent the abuse made it also liable to survivors.

While survivors from Mount Cashel from the 1970s and 1980s received compensation over 20 years ago following the provincial Hughes Inquiry, older survivors were not included in settlements at that time. This case opens the door for dozens of former residents from the 1940s to 1960s who had yet to receive justice for the abuse they suffered.

Growing up at Mount Cashel, “all the time, there was fear,” John Doe No. 26 told CBC News. “My memory of that will never go away.”

(A court order protects Mr. Doe’s identity and that of the other survivors, the norm in sexual abuse cases in Canada. Each of the dozens of survivors were assigned a number by the courts to distinguish among them.)

Survivor No. 26 described the brutality he experienced as “like something you’d see in a concentration
camp.” Brothers would force the boys to whip each other in front of their classmates, he said. They would compete to see who could hit the children the hardest. They would fondle, kiss and violate the children that had been entrusted to their care.

“I don’t like hurting people.… But the church is responsible for this, so the church has to pay,” he said. “It’s necessary for me. I think it’s necessary for the other boys.”

Each of the four plaintiffs in that decision—including John Doe No. 26—were awarded $1.9 million in damages. Now four other law firms collectively representing more than 100 other survivors are expected to file more claims. The archdiocese anticipates the settlement costs will eventually exceed $39 million.

And the Archdiocese of St. John’s does not have that kind of money. It was forced to do what many believed unthinkable—liquidate hundreds of properties from 34 parishes to raise the funds necessary to compensate the survivors.

“I don’t like hurting people, but the church is responsible for this, so the church has to pay. It’s necessary for me. I think it’s necessary for the other boys.”

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After processing their shock from the initial news, many parishioners quickly mobilized to save the churches where they had worshiped for generations. Not all succeeded, but some did.

“The community feels relieved,” said Rob Blackie, a spokesperson for a coalition which managed to place the winning bid of just over $2.3 million for the Basilica-Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, the Jesuit-run St. Bonaventure’s College and the nearby community center, St. Bon’s Forum.

The new owners intend that St. John’s Basilica will be able to continue as a place of worship. The college and the forum will also continue to serve the community.

“This is the beginning of a new era for [St. Bonaventure’s College], and it’s really one of renewal,” said Mr. Blackie, who also expressed his excitement for the opportunity to enhance the school’s program and help shape more public programming at the basilica.

“There’s a tremendous amount of optimism,” he added.

Not every congregation has been as fortunate, however.

“Each parish had to give over its reserve of funds, which was being administered by the archdiocese, to meet the demands of the claimants—the victims of the abuse,” said Derm Whelan, a member of St. Paul’s Parish in St. John’s. That meant that parishes had to raise additional money each Sunday, not only to pay their regular obligations but to raise money for the settlement. “A lot of them are having trouble,” Mr. Whelan said. “A couple of them have closed.”

Representatives from some of the purchased parishes are working out arrangements with new owners that could allow parish properties to continue to operate as churches. But other parish properties have been purchased by developers who plan to use the land for other purposes.

Mr. Whelan’s church was ultimately purchased by the Archdiocesan Renewal Corporation and will continue to operate, but the fate of other churches that did not receive acceptable bids remains uncertain.

But Ms. Walsh-Warren and the other members of St. Patrick’s no longer face a question of if they will have to leave their parish, but when. The heartbreaking process of saying goodbye to a home they have known for generations has already begun.

Ms. Walsh-Warren said her mother “still goes to Mass every Sunday on her own. She’s pretty active for an almost-88-year-old lady.”

“But when we sat after Mass this Sunday past…just talking about the practicalities [of closing the church], she just stops and she looks at me and she says, ‘This is really happening.’

“And she just closed her eyes and just shook her head.”

Ms. Walsh-Warren’s parents were active in the parish for decades. They were both eucharistic ministers, and her mother was involved with the Catholic Women’s League. Her father was a member of the parish’s Knights of Columbus chapter. When her father passed away, her mother donated a statue of the risen Christ that was blessed on what would have been the couple’s 56th anniversary.

Currently, the statue rests above the altar. But soon it will have to find a new home, along with the rest of the parish.

“St. Patrick’s is one of—if not the only—church that remains open in the city daily for people to just go in for quiet prayer. So that’s a huge loss to the whole city itself,” Ms. Walsh-Warren said. “I don’t think the reality will actually fully set in until we have that final Mass in September.”

Sales of church properties are expected to continue, according to a letter from Archbishop Peter Hundt. Ernst & Young, the court-approved monitor, will present a strategy to sell 19 properties that did not receive acceptable bids and 70 more properties from the Burin and Southern Avalon regions of the archdiocese.

The knowledge that the funds from the church sales will be going to the survivors provides some measure of comfort to congregations of St. John’s.

“Many, many of the victims have passed away without seeing closure to this. So yes, that is definitely a light at the end of the tunnel, that we’re finally dealing with something that needed to be dealt with,” Ms. Walsh-Warren said. “The parishioners—including my father—would be happy to know that the victims are being paid for justice.”

“I think of that as a tremendous moral victory,” said Mr. Blackie. “And I think the people involved on the fundraising side are proud to be a part of the effort.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that St. Patrick’s office and community center were purchased by a local law firm. In fact, it was the offices of the neighboring parish of Corpus Christi that have been purchased, while St. Patrick’s offices remain unsold.