Fate of 33 N.L. schools in legal limbo because of church-linked abuse scandals

CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) [Toronto, Canada]

November 30, 2022

By Terry Roberts

Lawyers at loggerheads over whether schools should be included in historic sales process

More than 1,000 teenagers briskly filed out of Holy Spirit High in Conception Bay South on a recent Friday at the end of another week of classes.

With the weekend on their minds, few appeared to take notice of the tall white cross secured to the school’s exterior brick wall or give a second thought as to why the school has a religious name.

It’s a throwback to when Newfoundland and Labrador’s education system was financed with public money but administered by various Christian denominations, a right that was enshrined in the constitution as part of the province’s terms of union with Canada.

Now, a quarter-century after the denominational system was abolished — following years of intense debate and two referendums — and the government took full control of education, controversy has resurfaced.

[Photo: Marystown Central High had a enrolment of 341 student during the 2021-22 school year. The Roman Catholic Episcopal Corporation of St. John’s is the registered owner of the school, but a law passed in the late 1990s allows the school district to use the building for as long as it’s needed for educational purposes. (Terry Roberts/CBC)]

And while it’s a worst-case scenario, it has the potential to disrupt education throughout the Avalon and Burin peninsulas.

Nearly 11,000 students, attending 33 schools, are at the centre of a legal battle linked to a decades-long abuse scandal involving the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. John’s, and its landholding company, the episcopal corporation.

Some of the province’s most prominent and largest schools are involved, including O’Donel High in Mount Pearl, Gonzaga High in St. John’s and Marystown Central High.

And in a throwback to an earlier era, many have religious names such as Sacred Heart Elementary in Marystown, St. Edward’s Elementary in Conception Bay South and Christ the King School in Rushoon.

Claims could exceed $50M

The fate of these properties is now linked to the historic insolvency of the episcopal corporation, which has been found liable for the abuse suffered by boys at the notorious Mount Cashel orphanage in the 1940s and ’50s.

In order to settle claims that some suggest could reach $50 million, the episcopal corporation has been granted bankruptcy protection by the province’s supreme court while it sells off churches, parish halls, rectories and other properties throughout the archdiocese to the highest bidder. More than $20 million has so far been raised.

There’s another collection of properties — the schools — that has, so far, been off limits in this historic disposal process, but a critical court hearing scheduled for February could have dramatic consequences.

It’s possible Justice Garrett Handrigan could rule that these properties must be included in the fire sale of properties, opening the door to a scenario where for sale signs go up at familiar schools like Mary Queen of Peace Elementary in St. John’s, Baltimore High in Ferryland or St. Joseph’s Academy in Lamaline.

Those close to the situation say it’s possible a fund management firm with deep pockets could swoop in, buy up all the schools and drive a hard bargain with the provincial government to preserve access to the schools.

Schools Act amended to allow for school use

Handrigan may also rule that the schools are off limits and protected by the Schools Act, which was amended in the late 1990s to allow the school boards to occupy the church-owned schools for as long as they’re needed for educational purposes.

A third option? An out-of-court settlement that sees the the provincial government write a big cheque to the episcopal corporation, which is the registered owner of the schools, thereby avoiding any disruptions, and ensures the legal claims are settled.

[Photo: The Roman Catholic Episcopal Corporation of St. John’s, the landholding arm of the St. John’s archdiocese, has been found liable for the abuse suffered by boys at the Mount Cashel orphanage in the 1940s and ’50s. The orphanage was operated by the Christian Brothers of Ireland in Canada. (CBC)]

That third option is the one favoured by lawyer Geoff Budden, a St. John’s lawyer who represents dozens of abuse victims.

“The parties all have some desire to find a resolution perhaps short of court,” Budden told CBC News recently.

“The best case for the survivors and for the people of Newfoundland and for the children who attend these schools is that there be a resolution that allows these schools to continue to be used as schools. But the ownership interest the episcopal corporation has would also be recognized, and compensated for.”

If the victims are to be fairly compensated for the suffering they endured at the hands of predatory priests and the Christian Brothers who operated the orphanage, said Budden, the schools must be included in the insolvency process.

“They too should be available to be sold or otherwise compensated for,” Budden said.

Federation of school councils hoping for a solution

It’s an unsettling circumstance for the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of School Councils, which is the voice for parents in the province when it comes to educational issues.

“I hope it doesn’t jeopardize the education of the students in our province,” said federation president Don Coombs.

“Hopefully there’s a solution. There always is if everybody remains respectful of each other’s opinion and we can continue to carry on providing quality education to the students of our province.”

Neither the provincial government nor the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District would agree to an interview while the matter is before the court.


Terry Roberts is a reporter with CBC Newfoundland and Labrador, and is based in St. John’s. He previously worked for The Telegram, The Compass and The Northern Pen newspapers during a career that began in 1991. He can be reached by email at: Terry.Roberts@cbc.ca.