Almost everything must be sold. Hundreds of properties from 34 parishes will be liquidated, including the towering Basilica of St. John the Baptist, the second-largest Catholic church in the country.
The Archdiocese of St. John’s faces a staggering bill — one that could top $50 million — to compensate survivors of sexual abuse at the former Mount Cashel Orphanage, one of the first major pedophilia scandals to rock the Roman Catholic Church in Canada.
The archdiocese doesn’t have the money. The Vatican isn’t stepping in to help. That means thousands of parishioners could soon lose the churches they thought they owned.
“I don’t understand,” said Jerome Fennelly after what may have been the last Easter mass at Portugal Cove’s Holy Rosary Church, where he’s worshipped for 62 years.
“This house, this church, the church hall, was built by the parishioners in this parish, and the Archdiocese of St. John’s can just come in here and take it and sell it? I don’t understand it at all.”
Parishioners like Fennelly have until June 2 to submit a bid to buy back their church. Other parishes will soon face the same stark choice.
On the one hand, the archdiocese has already seized almost all parish savings, so if worshippers want to buy their church, they have to start from scratch. On the other hand, if they throw in the towel, they run the risk of having no place to worship. All the other churches in the area are also on the market.
It’s an untenable situation for many Catholics, but the legal explanation is simple. In 2019, the Newfoundland and Labrador Court of Appeal ruled that the Roman Catholic Episcopal Corporation of St. John’s, the archdiocese’s secular arm, is vicariously liable for sexual abuse at Mount Cashel in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s.
The Christian Brothers of Ireland, a Catholic lay order, ran the orphanage, but the court decided the archdiocese allowed the brothers to commit decades of sexual and physical assaults with impunity.
The judge awarded $2.4 million in damages to four survivors, opening a path to claims from more than 100 more.
John Doe No. 26, who waited for that court decision most of his life, spent eight terrifying years at Mount Cashel in the 1950s. The abuse was sexual, physical, psychological.
“All the time there was fear. All the time,” said Doe, whose identity is protected by a court order. The court assigned each survivor a number in order to keep the dozens of victims straight.
“My memory of that will never go away — you know, never, never, never go away. It’s imprinted.”
The brutality of the brothers was “like something you’d see in a concentration camp,” said Doe. They would force boys to whip each other in front of their classmates. They’d compete to see who had the best strap and who could hit the children the hardest. Other times, they would fondle, kiss and violate the children they were supposed to protect.
“I don’t like hurting people.… I wouldn’t want to do that. But the church is responsible for this, so the church has to pay. You know, if it means taking the churches and schools to pay for that, so be it,” he said. “It’s necessary for me. I think it’s necessary for the other boys.”
A society that looked the other way
When the Mount Cashel story finally broke in February 1989, it rocked the Catholic Church in Newfoundland. Many parishioners refused to believe the story. Others, like Françoise Enguehard, stopped going to church.
“I lived for a time next to the orphanage and I actually envied the little orphans because they had a pool at the orphanage and I would say to myself, ‘They’re so lucky,’” said Enguehard, a former journalist with Radio-Canada. “When the news broke, it was like we’d all been violated.”
The Hughes commission of inquiry, whose hearings were broadcast live on TV, revealed the extent of the brothers’ sexual crimes and the scope of the coverup orchestrated not just by the church, but also police and government.
The commission’s focus was a 1975 Royal Newfoundland Constabulary investigation that was shut down. A police officer interviewed 24 children about their assaults. Two Christian Brothers even confessed. But the chief of police and top government officials ordered the investigation closed. No charges were brought against the brothers, who in return were sent out of province.
“What we discovered with the Hughes commission is that the social services looked the other way, that the police looked the other way, and that rather than put the brothers in prison, they were able to go and do under the Caribbean sun what they had been doing here in the fog,” said Enguehard.
Decades in court
Brother after brother walked, handcuffed, into the province’s Supreme Court to face trial in the 1990s. But court battles over compensation have dragged on for decades.
“The clients have been waiting a long time and a number of them have died along the way,” said Geoff Budden, a lawyer representing some 86 survivors. So far, he’s spent 31 years suing the provincial government, Christian Brothers and archdiocese on their behalf. For years, he even considered suing the Vatican.
“I’ve thought about this as have other lawyers, and there may be lines of attack, but the more obvious one is the archdiocese, which through which its secular arm, the Roman Catholic Episcopal Corporation of St. John’s, incorporated in 1897, owns all the property of the church and has the obligation to defend and answer judgments.”
Selling the archdiocese’s assets is the final step of the interminable court process, Budden said. Some houses and pieces of land have already been sold. In March, 25 of the highest-value properties in the St. John’s area were put up for tender.
Basilica for sale
At the top of the list: the 29,000-square-foot Basilica of St. John the Baptist, whose tender documents read like a fictitious real estate listing.
The complex has a newly installed mini-split system. It also has 17 bells and a crypt containing the remains of at least two bishops.
Shane O’Dea, an English professor who has studied the architecture of the basilica for 50 years, said seeing the church for sale is “intensely disturbing.”
“I may not be a Catholic, but this is my culture, my background. This is my town. This is the mark of the town, as much as Signal Hill is,” he said, referring to the iconic hill that overlooks St. John’s harbour.
“It is also possible that this has no other use but as a church,” added O’Dea.
The basilica is a municipal, provincial and national historic site.
CBC News reported last month that a group of prominent Catholics in St. John’s were planning a bid to buy the entire basilica complex, which includes a skating rink and the St. Bonaventure’s College private school. Private developers from Toronto also may be interested in buying at least some of the property.
Geoff Budden said he recognizes the historical value and emotional attachment to church buildings, but the archdiocese has no other option but to sell.
“No one’s going to buy to knock it down, to put up a supermarket. That’s absurd. That’s not going to happen. But yes, it will be sold. Somebody will buy it,” Budden said.
“As I’ve said from the beginning, this has to be a survivor-centred process. It has to be focused on getting fair financial compensation for survivors.”
A shot at saving their church
At Corpus Christi Church in St. John’s, Ian Kelly said he understands the survivors must be paid and that selling the churches is inevitable. But he said he fears the void created if thousands of parishioners suddenly lose their place of worship.
“You know, we had three baptisms here just this past Sunday,” Kelly said. Many of the city’s food banks also operate out of Catholic churches. “The church provides a community focus so that you bring together a group of people that can achieve other things in the community.”
Kelly said he believes Corpus Christi’s few hundred worshippers have a shot at saving their church. The parishioners organized early and have been collecting money since the archdiocese entered insolvency proceedings last December.
But raising the cash hasn’t been easy. The parish has to prepare a bid while continuing to pay its electricity and furnace oil costs, which have spiked. Two part-time employees have already been let go.
“We know it’s going to be tough. Will we succeed? Who knows? But we’re going to have a good run at it and we’ll see how we do,” said Kelly.
In a recent insolvency hearing, Geoff Spencer, one of the archdiocese’s lawyers, said the “most obvious buyers” of the churches are parishioners. But in the end, Budden said, the buildings will go to the highest bidder.
“The natural buyer is the buyer with the most money,” Budden said.
After the 25 properties in the St. John’s area, hundreds of other assets will be put up for sale. Thirty school properties built by the church but operated by the provincial government could also be sold. A settlement recently ensured cemeteries wouldn’t be put up for sale, but nothing else will be spared, said Budden.
His client, John Doe No. 26, said he understands parishioners are upset. But the archdiocese has a debt to pay.
“I went through not even half of what some of those guys went through. You know, it was abhorrent on the highest scale that could happen to you,” he said.
“[The court said] that the church is responsible. So are the parishioners. When this started coming out, oh, the denial from everyone. I think every single church in Newfoundland, when they heard this, when there was proof, they should have gone to their church, they should have thrown the priests out.”
At Holy Rosary Church, on Easter Sunday, Father Ken Walsh preached about resurrection. “We celebrate a time when the world changed,” he told 120 worshippers, most of them elderly.
At Mount Cashel, John Doe’s life also changed forever. He still hears voices from his time at the orphanage, torn down in 1992, whenever he enters the supermarket erected in its place. And he’ll never forget the torture he endured at the hands of the brothers.
“Some people say, you know, there’s a closure,” he said. “Now do you think I’ve closed anything? Do you think I’ve come to a closure?”