Priests hold the Eucharist during a Mass of Hope and Healing for victims of sex abuse in Brooklyn, N.Y. CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz

Church caught in a hail of unfriendly fire

  • November 6, 2017
The Catholic Church in Nova Scotia has recently been exposed to unfriendly fire.

It started when a Liberal cabinet minister introduced a bill to a committee of the legislature to allow the Archdiocese of Halifax-Yarmouth, one of only two dioceses in the province, to divest itself of assets and place them into sub-corporations controlled by individual parishes. The committee then deferred the bill.

The deferral came at the urgings of Halifax lawyer John McKiggan, who represents hundreds of sexual assault victims allegedly abused by priests. 

The lawyer said reorganizing the archdiocese would make it more difficult for abuse victims to receive fair compensation for their injuries. He hinted that the reorganization was simply a way to hide assets in the event of future legal actions.

Premier Stephen McNeil lauded the committee for deferring the bill as the government reviews it to ensure no unintended consequences might ensue. But the suggestion that the archdiocese was trying to stow away assets drew the ire of the archdiocesan chancellor.

“First of all, under Church rules the bishop can’t do that,” Deacon Bob Britton told local media. “And if he did that, then the question would be: How much longer would he be the bishop?”

Britton said lawyers have told the Church that the courts have already determined that the archdiocese and individual parishes would be responsible for any future claims of sexual abuse.

“The unintended consequences that are alluded to are simply not there,” he said.

Nova Scotia’s other diocese — Antigonish — agreed to a $16-million settlement in 2012 to be paid to 125 confirmed and alleged victims of sexual abuse. The settlement forced the diocese to put about 150 properties up for sale and require more than 100 parishes to yield savings.

Britton said the intent of the new bill is to recognize in civil law what is already a Church reality — that each parish is a separate entity while still joined with the archdiocese.

“The claims of a kind of nefarious motives, I assure you, they are not there,” said Britton.

Still, a local talk radio show the next day drew comments from people who seemed to have a vendetta against the Catholic Church. One self-professed lapsed Catholic said she would never trust or believe the Church again and that it, indeed, was likely trying to hide assets.

Another caller said the Church and its officials lie, lie, lie.

Even the show’s host got involved, voicing his professed personal indignation with priests who had sexually abused in the past. Why can’t the Pope do something, another caller wondered, as the call-ins centred around past sexual abuse in the Church instead of the archdiocese’s reorganization plan.

It seems that almost any conversation can lend itself to severe criticism of the Church, its leaders and its followers. There is certainly no evidence that the Church is reorganizing to safeguard assets. By contrast, several legal experts and the Church itself contend that reorganization cannot facilitate asset-hiding.

But it still appears that Catholic and Christian bashing remains one of the last bastions of acceptability in the politically correct world in which we live.

A short time before the reorganization issue surfaced, a visiting priest from Manhattan in New York brought a different Catholic message to our parish. 

Fr. John Collins, a Paulist missionary, brought a story of hope for the Church and its members, wrapped in humour and conviction.

A theme of the three-day mission was reacquaintance with God. Congregants were invited to be more articulate about their relationship with God in order to strengthen their own faith life, enhance parish life and offer greater witness to neighbours.

Collins talked about evangelizing through actions, noting that secular outsiders are often more impressed with what Catholics do than what they say. 

He preached that there is no segment of society should be dismissed or marginalized, including the aged, the infirm, the overweight, the vertically challenged, those who we think are less intelligent, people who are poor or homeless, those who work in the service industry and people of different sexual orientations and religions.

As difficult as it can be, Collins insisted that we see Jesus in every marginalized person we encounter each and every day.

Jesus is found in the least of the brethren we stumble upon, even those who denigrate and always think the worst of the Church.

The example of Catholic lives well lived ought to be enough to deflect the unfriendly fire.

(Campbell is a reporter at the Halifax Chronicle Herald.)