As church sales continue, lawyers bicker over how millions for abuse victims should be paid

St. John's lawyer Geoff Budden represents dozens of clients who were victims of abuse at the hands of Christian Brothers at the former Mount Cashel orphanage or by priests at various churches throughout the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. John's. (Terry Roberts/CBC - image credit)
St. John's lawyer Geoff Budden represents dozens of clients who were victims of abuse at the hands of Christian Brothers at the former Mount Cashel orphanage or by priests at various churches throughout the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. John's. (Terry Roberts/CBC - image credit)

While a Catholic archdiocese in Newfoundland and Labrador continues to sell off its properties, lawyers are squabbling over how millions in proceeds from those sales should be paid out to abuse victims.

The two sides are miles apart, but only one side is talking.

"We believe there are better ways of approaching it," said St. John's lawyer Geoff Budden, who represents dozens of abuse victims, on Monday.

More than 100 claimants have come forward seeking compensation for abuse suffered while living at the Mount Cashel orphanage in the 1940s and '50s, and at the hands of Catholic priests at various parishes in the archdiocese.

The courts have determined the archdiocese is vicariously liable for the abuse at the orphanage, which was run by the Congregation of Christian Brothers. The archdiocese's property holding arm, known as an episcopal corporation, has been in bankruptcy protection for nearly a year as it sells off properties, including churches, in a bid to raise enough money to settle claims that could exceed $50 million.

CBC
CBC

As this historic and uncomfortable process inches forward, the spotlight is beginning to shine on the claims process and the formula and method by which compensation amounts will be determined.

Lawyers for the victims have put forward their plan on how to identify claimants and distribute compensation, while lawyers for the episcopal corporation have countered with a different strategy, said Budden.

Both sides are expected to fight it out in court beginning later this month, with Justice Garrett A. Handrigan to have the final say.

"Unfortunately we have not had a history of being able to resolve matters out of court with the episcopal corporation. So this is yet another example of where a judge will have to decide because we haven't been able to come to an agreement," Budden said.

Based on recent court disclosures, victims could receive anywhere from nothing to $2 million, while an earlier court ruling involving four abuse victims awarded an average of $600,000 to each claimant.

But Budden said that court case involved multiple expert witnesses, at a cost of some $100,000, and lasted more than two weeks.

"That process is simply too complex, too costly, too time-consuming to bring into an insolvency," said Budden. "To run that process for 100-plus people would be impossible."

The challenge is to find a process that is fair and suitable to the court but is also streamlined in such a way that it's not too costly or retraumatizing for the elderly victims, Budden said.

"We wish to import into this process a concept of averaging or tiers to make sure that the ultimate result doesn't deviate from where the law currently is. The episcopal corporation is very resistant to bringing in that averaging concept," he said.

The disagreement is likely to result in a delay in the compensation process, but Budden and church leaders are confident that victims will begin receiving money in 2023.

"While no delay is a good delay, we don't anticipate it would be such a delay as to seriously derail the process," said Budden.

"We believe our process is a more accurate reflection of the law as its stands and is more survivor-centred in that it doesn't retraumatize them through lengthy and what we believe are unnecessary processes of assessment and valuation. If we're forced to jump through those hoops, we will. We're obviously not going away."

Terry Roberts/CBC
Terry Roberts/CBC

More than 40 churches and others properties in the St. John's area have been sold, and a similar process is well underway at rural church properties on the Avalon and Burin peninsulas.

The process is transforming a once-powerful institution, resulting in amalgamated parishes and fewer churches.

An official tally is not known, but the sales process has generated more than $20 million, well short of the $50-million target.

Lawyers like Budden hope a looming court battle over the fate of some schools in the region linked to the old denominational education system, and an ongoing fight between the episcopal corporation and its insurance provider, will results in millions more for the victims.

"The issues we're arguing about, we believe, are worth fighting for," said Budden.

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