A Roman Catholic diocese in Nova Scotia will try to close a dark chapter in its history this week as it wraps up a sex abuse settlement with 125 people, but the lawyer representing them says they continue to heal their emotional wounds.
The final instalment of a $16-million compensation settlement for confirmed and alleged victims of sexual abuse is due Thursday from the Diocese of Antigonish, bringing a close to a long legal process spearheaded by Ronald Martin.
Martin launched a class-action lawsuit against the diocese after his brother wrote a suicide note in 2002 alleging Hugh Vincent MacDonald, a priest, sexually abused him. MacDonald was charged with sex-related offences in 2003 but died a year later before the court process concluded.
Martin's concerns prompted dozens of people to come forward with similar allegations dating back more than 60 years against several priests who worked for the diocese.
"This has been a very long and difficult process and Ron Martin took this on his shoulders," said Halifax lawyer John McKiggan, who represented the plaintiffs.
"I know personally it's been a source of a great deal of stress for Ron because he felt not only the obligation to fulfil a promise to his brother, but also the obligation he undertook on behalf of all the class members."
Martin did not return messages seeking comment.
McKiggan said he believes the final payment will give plaintiffs a sense of relief after struggling with the uncertainty of whether the diocese, which was forced to put some of its assets up for sale, could come up with the full settlement.
"I know that the survivors that I've talked to recently are certainly looking forward to being able to close the book on this and move forward," said McKiggan.
He said the settlement was not about money — it was about holding the Roman Catholic Church accountable for past misdeeds.
'This was never about money'
"This was never about money to begin with. For Ron Martin, this was about fulfilling a promise … and holding someone accountable for what happened to him and all the other survivors," said McKiggan.
"That has been achieved through the class-action, but trying to heal … that's a process that's ongoing."
Rev. Donald MacGillivray, a spokesman for the diocese, said it is prepared to make the last payment. But the settlement has become a significant financial burden for the diocese, which has lost many members in recent years, he added.
"People have found this really difficult. The whole thing has been terribly distasteful," he said.
"The fact that the diocese had to do this in the first place, that these wrongdoings occurred in the first place, has really been difficult for people."
The diocese put about 150 properties up for sale. More than 100 parishes were drained of their savings, MacGillivray said.
Also included in the sale of assets was the Casket, a local weekly newspaper owned by the diocese. It was bought by the owner of the Halifax Chronicle Herald.
MacGillivray said at the St. Anthony Daniel Parish in Sydney, N.S., where he serves as a pastor, about $8,500 in cash was funnelled into the settlement — the church's entire savings.
"It's really difficult for parishioners who had nothing to do with this, have no responsibility, but yet, they're requiring to be involved in sacrificing so this payment can be made," he said.
$13 million for alleged and confirmed victims
But MacGillivray said the diocese can soon turn its attention to rebuilding its finances.
"The savings that parishes had to give up, we'll have to work at trying to collect the funds we need to do the work that we need to do," he said.
Raymond Lahey, the former bishop of the diocese, helped broker the settlement in August 2009. That came weeks before he was charged with importing child pornography into Canada. He was later convicted, sentenced to time served, and defrocked by the Holy See in Rome.
The settlement will provide $13 million to alleged and confirmed victims of sexual abuse at the hands of priests who worked for the diocese between 1950 and September 2009. The rest of it will cover legal and administrative fees.
McKiggan said some of the plaintiffs have been awarded funding for counselling that will continue on an ongoing basis, and there is also a reconciliation process that they can participate in along with the diocese.
"The purpose is to try to mend fences and heal the wounds," he said.
MacGillivray said he is optimistic the diocese and the plaintiffs will be able to move on.
"Healing always takes time," said MacGillivray.
"But I'm a person of hope, and that's what my faith calls me to be."