In 1999, four anonymous plaintiffs took the Catholic Archdiocese of St. John’s to court over sexual abuse they suffered at Mount Cashel Orphanage during the 1940s and 1950s.
Now the Court of Appeals of Newfoundland and Labrador has ruled that the Archdiocese is legally and financially liable for the abuse that took place in the orphanage, even though the abusers were not diocesan employees, because the Archdiocese created an environment that allowed the abuse to occur.
The orphanage was run by the Christian Brothers, a charitable order with roots in 19th-century Ireland, focused on providing education to struggling Catholic boys. The Brothers remained active in Canada until 2011, when they declared bankruptcy. Following their dissolution, over four hundred sex abuse claims were filed against the order, with more than a quarter of these originating in Newfoundland and Labrador.
The four survivors, now elderly, have all received partial settlements from the Brothers’ liquidated assets. But the case with the Church remained unsettled after the men appealed a provincial Supreme Court’s decision that ruled in the Archdiocese’s favor.
See, the Archdiocese admits the abuse took place. They just claim they had nothing to do with it:
The Archdiocese did not dispute that the Brothers had abused the plaintiffs, and the judge accepted the Archdiocese’s acknowledgement in this regard. However, the Archdiocese did dispute that it was negligent or that it was vicariously liable… The basis for its denial is that the Brothers at Mount Cashel were separate from the Archdiocese, and that they acted independently from the Archdiocese in all respects involving the appellants and other residents of the orphanage.
That’s not entirely accurate, though. The Archdiocese had a man on the ground at Mount Cashel: Monsignor Ryan, a serving parish priest who lived onsite at the orphanage as a spiritual advisor for the orphans. The victims testified that they told the Monsignor about the abuse they had experienced, but he took no action to protect them or prevent further harm.
Even though Ryan’s parish church — St. Raphael’s Chapel — literally existed on the same grounds as the orphanage, the Archdiocese tried to argue for a firewall of separation between the parish work and the Brothers’ work at the orphanage, such that Ryan had no particular duty to the children of Mount Cashel.
The Appeals Court didn’t buy it:
To the extent that St. Raphael’s parish could be considered separate from Mount Cashel, its presence on site, attached to the orphanage, the regular interaction between the priest and the appellants, and the interrelationship between the Brothers and the Church itself, is, at a minimum, suggestive of the orphanage being a joint venture between the Archdiocese and the Brothers.… In our view, the total relationship between the Brothers at Mount Cashel and the Archdiocese shows that the Brothers were working on the account of the Archdiocese’s social and religious mandate. Their relationship was sufficiently close, and the connection between the Brothers’ assigned tasks and their wrongdoing was sufficiently close, to justify the imposition of vicarious liability on the Archdiocese.
As noted by CBC News, it’s a big deal because it’s the first time the Church proper has been held responsible for the abuse that occurred at Mount Cashel. That could pave the way for other abuse survivors to target the Church itself instead of its (often less wealthy) satellite orders and affiliates.
Lawyer Geoff Budden, who represented the survivors, believes the Church could lose millions of dollars paying damages in such cases:
It would be really speculating on my part to say, but if these four received a total award of approximately $2 million and there’s over 60 claimants, we’re certainly talking about a substantial amount of money.
St. John’s Archbishop Peter Hundt asked for time to review the ruling before making a statement. (The Church will have 60 days to make a decision about appealing to the Supreme Court of Canada.) But his brief comments seem to hint at following the same tired party line:
While the Archdiocese of St. John’s was never responsible for the operations of the orphanage or the school at Mount Cashel, we have immense sympathy for those who suffered in the past and continue to suffer as a result of abuse. We ask for prayers for all those involved in this sad matter.
Translation: We’re happy to send thoughts and prayers, but we had nothing to do with it and it wasn’t our fault.
Which is, of course, absolute hogwash. The Church is glad to snap up credit when affiliated organizations like the Christian Brothers are seen as benevolent organizations, educating orphans and uplifting the poor. They can’t get away with disavowing the same organizations after members use the perception of benevolence to gain access so they can abuse children.
At this point it’s clear that the Church in all its manifestations has been enabling a culture of abuse. Splitting hairs about which particular subdivision is most responsible just obscures the extent of the problem, benefiting the Church at victims’ expense.