Halifax archdiocese bill on hold because of 'serious, serious implications'

A lawyer for sex assault victims told the legislative committee he believes the bill is a ploy by the Catholic Church to protect assets from claims by victims.

Halifax lawyer representing sexual abuse victims suggests law would shelter assets

A legislative committee has shelved a bill aimed at reorganizing the Archdiocese of Halifax-Yarmouth after a presentation by lawyer John McKiggan. (Robert Short/CBC)

An all-party committee of the Nova Scotia Legislature that usually handles non-controversial bills and potential laws of strictly local concern has unanimously agreed to shelve a bill aimed at reorganizing the Archdiocese of Halifax-Yarmouth. 

The committee voted to hold the bill at this stage of the lawmaking process following a presentation by lawyer John McKiggan, who has represented and continues to represent hundreds of sexual assault victims who were abused by priests.

In his presentation to the committee, McKiggan said, "I would suggest the only reason for this proposed change to legislation that has existed for over 100 years is to make it more difficult for survivors of priest sexual abuse to be able to receive just and fair compensation for their injuries."

A lawyer acting on behalf of the archdiocese, Joel MacDonald, later told the committee that was not the intent, nor would the change protect the church organization from claims by victims.

"Should an abuse victim be entitled to compensation as the law stands, this act is not going to protect any assets from anything," he said. 

'Serious implications'

The differing opinions caused even Liberal members of the private and local bills committee to agree to halt the process, even though Bill 30 was introduced by cabinet minister Lena Diab on behalf of the Catholic organization.

Keith Irving, MLA for Kings South, expressed concerns about the potential effects of the bill.

"The consequences or unintended consequences, I believe, have serious, serious implications that I think we have to proceed very cautiously with. And so I think, given the questions we've heard around the table, there's strong support for the motion to defer," he said before the vote.

Lawyer John McKiggan, who has represented sexual abuse victims, said he believes the bill would make it harder for victims of priest sexual abuse to receive compensation. (Brian Chisholm/CBC)

Outside the Red Chamber, McKiggan said he was happy with the decision to defer the bill. He also reiterated his concern about what the bill would mean to him and the people he represents.

"I'm a lawyer. I'm naturally suspicious," he said. "I've sued this diocese many times. I've sued other diocese many times. It is a very sad fact that time after time we have seen that persons in authority within the church have sought to protect the institution, the reputation of the institution, rather than protecting children in the parishes in the diocese."

Chancellor reacts

But deacon Bob Britton, chancellor of the archdiocese, vehemently denied any attempt by the church to hide or shelter assets from legal action.

"Every bloody lawyer who I've ever talked to in this matter says no," he told reporters in response to being asked if this bill would shelter assets. "The courts have said no. Do you want me to say no again? It does not shelter in any way, shape, or form, anything!"

Immigration Minister Lena Diab said she knew nothing about the concerns expressed by McKiggan before agreeing to shepherd the bill through the legislature.

About the Author

Jean Laroche

Reporter

Jean Laroche has been a CBC reporter for 32 years. He's been covering Nova Scotia politics since 1995 and has been at Province House longer than any sitting member.