Critics blast Catholic Church for spending after commitment to residential school survivors went unmet

A growing chorus across Canada is demanding the Catholic Church pay the full $25 million it once promised to residential school survivors — saying it's shameful for the money to remain unpaid while tens of millions are spent on elaborate church buildings.

Archdiocese of Regina in middle of $17M campaign for new pastoral centre, cathedral renovations

A $17-million fundraising campaign has been underway for two years to renovate this Regina cathedral and build an adjacent ministry centre. Critics say it's immoral to raise money for buildings after the Catholic Church's financial commitment to residential school survivors went unmet. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details

A growing chorus across Canada is demanding the Catholic Church pay the full $25 million it once promised to residential school survivors — saying it's shameful for the money to remain unpaid while tens of millions are spent on elaborate church buildings.

CBC News has learned of a $17-million fundraising campaign currently underway for cathedral renovations and new construction in the Archdiocese of Regina. That's in addition to a $16-million shrine/church that opened last year in Canmore, Alta., the $28.5-million cathedral built in Saskatoon less than a decade ago and other capital projects across the country.

The church, which ran many of Canada's residential schools, has been under increasing pressure for restitution and transparency since what are believed to be the unmarked burial sites of children's remains were recently found at or near former school sites in Kamloops, B.C., and at Cowessess First Nation, east of Regina. A similar discovery was revealed in B.C.'s South Interior on Wednesday.

"I think it's very disappointing. The Catholic Church has a lot of work to do to make amends," said Mayo Moran, provost and vice-chancellor of Trinity College at the University of Toronto.

"The least it could do is meet its commitments."

Former University of Toronto dean of law, Mayo Moran, is one of many saying the church needs to honour its original $25-million commitment to residential school survivors. (Nicole Ireland/CBC)

The church agreed to pay $25 million for school survivors in a historic settlement in 2005. The deal obligated the church to make "best efforts," and launch a fundraising campaign similar to that of a university or hospital.

After seven years, less than $4 million had been raised nationally. The church's lawyers argued in a secret court hearing it had made those best efforts and a judge agreed, absolving the church of further fundraising. The results of the hearing were published months later. 

The incomplete payment is "an absolute embarrassment." said Chief Bobby Cameron of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN), which represents Saskatchewan's First Nations.

"All efforts should be going to helping survivors and their families, not to buildings."

Moran, who spent 15 years chairing the compensation committee for residential school survivors, says spending millions on cathedrals and churches "casts doubt" on the church's claim it gave its best efforts to help survivors.

She said Pope Francis has been progressive on climate change and other issues, but that he and Vatican officials have not done nearly enough on abuse and residential school issues.

Saskatoon Catholics raised $28.5 million to build this cathedral in 2012, while critics say a promise to compensate residential school survivors was largely ignored. The story was similar across Canada.
Saskatoon Catholics raised $28.5 million to build this cathedral in 2012. (Jason Warick/CBC)

"You can see a pattern of avoiding financial responsibility and extreme litigiousness. It doesn't reflect well on the church," said Moran.

In the Archdiocese of Regina, staff, volunteers and contractors have been working for two years on the $17-million campaign to renovate Holy Rosary Cathedral and construct a ministry centre.

"We have now received a total of $6.58M in gifts and pledges and are expecting that number to grow as donors are inspired to support the campaign … Together we can make it happen!" reads a letter from the campaign chairs on the Archdiocese website.

The website also contains detailed instructions for individual church parishes wanting to build or renovate. It recommends church members "identify a need for several donors to make donations in excess of $10,000 for your campaign to be successful." 

The website states the four keys to success are "prayer, involvement of pastor, choice of people [and] public relations/communications."

The Archdiocese has hired the same professional fundraising firm that helped Saskatoon Catholics raise $28.5 million for a new cathedral.

The doors of St. Paul's Co-Cathedral were painted in protest after the discovery of 751 unmarked graves near the former Marieval Residential School on the Cowessess First Nation on Thursday. (Donna Heimbecker/Facebook)

Archbishop Don Bolen was not available for an interview Wednesday morning, but an official confirmed details of the campaign. Last week, following the discovery at Cowessess First Nation, Bolen said he hopes to revive the fundraising for survivors. No details have been announced and no money has been committed at last word.

In Saskatoon, Bishop Mark Hagemoen has declined several interview requests, but in a statement issued Wednesday morning said he would "very much support" more fundraising for survivors.

Both reiterated their apology to survivors for the Catholic Church's central role in running many of the schools for more than a century.

Moran and others say these vague statements are meaningless. They say Catholics in every parish across Canada need to take action.

"Catholics need to push their church to do the right thing. All the pressure needs to be brought to bear. There are forces within the church that could be mobilized. There needs to be a lot of voices pushing," Moran said.

Cameron and others said that if Canadian churches and members refuse to help, the Vatican should pay. They point to the Vatican Bank's partial records release, which showed $6 billion US in assets, land holdings that cover a total area larger than the province of Saskatchewan, and the Vatican's collection of renaissance paintings, sculptures and other art.

All other church denominations that were part of the settlement — Anglican, United, Presbyterian — paid their full shares years ago.

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.