Robert’s column

Robert’s column

Robert Barron Column: Church won’t be the same again

It’s strange and disheartening to see one of the most important and untouchable institutions from my youth brought so low.

When I was growing up in St. John’s, NL, in a Roman Catholic family, the church reached into almost all aspects of my life. My family would dutifully join thousands of Catholics for mass each Sunday in churches across the city, and I attended schools run by the now-infamous Christian Brothers of Ireland, a Catholic lay order who ran a number of boys’-only schools in the city. They also ran the notorious Mount Cashel orphanage which wrecked carnage in the lives of many of the orphans who lived there as they were sexually abused by a number of the brothers whose “care” they were in.

Personally, I found that most of the brothers who taught me were good educators and were genuinely concerned for the welfare and educational progress of their students, but all it takes is a few bad apples to upset the whole cart.

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, was vicariously liable for sexual abuse at Mount Cashel during the 20th century.

The court ruled that the archdiocese allowed the brothers to commit decades of sexual and physical assaults with impunity and awarded $2.4 million in damages to four survivors, opening a path to claims from more than 100 more.

The archdiocese is now expected to be on the hook for tens of millions of dollars, if not more, it doesn’t have in compensation for the many survivors of the abuse.

That means everything the archdiocese owns, including large tracts of land and every one of the 34 parishes it runs, is now up for sale.

The Catholic church had been held in very high esteem by its members in St. John’s for hundreds of years, but its credibility took quite a hit when news of what had happened at Mount Cashel, as well as sexual improprieties by some priests in other parts of the archdiocese, in the late 1980s, and this latest news has seen that trust between the church and its people erode even further.

The fact is that church members in almost all of those 34 parishes that are now up for sale have invested large amounts of their own money and time to help with the ongoing maintenance of these facilities over many years.

In some cases, they actually built them from scratch using their own resources, and now the church plans to sell them to the highest bidder so they can be converted to condos or other private enterprises. It’s a slap in the face and I’ve read that one priest in a parish in a small community I once lived in has left the church over the issue and opened a pizza parlour.

Then there’s the iconic Basilica of St. John the Baptist in St. John’s, the second-largest Catholic church in the country and the centre of the Catholic faith in the city, which is also up for sale.

The Basilica was built in the late 1800s mainly by impoverished Irish immigrants who had escaped the potato famine in their homeland.

Most of the labourers who worked on the dangerous and back-breaking job did it merely for the free meal that was provided in the middle of each work day.

But they built a beautiful structure that has stood as a symbol of the faith in the centre of the city ever since.

The thought that this long-standing church that has been so important for many generations of Catholics could be bought, renovated and turned into a huge condo project must be devastating for many. I can’t help but think that if the archdiocese had dealt properly with its members who had abused children at the time when the crimes were committed and turned them over for prosecution, instead of trying to hide their deeds, the archdiocese likely wouldn’t be in this pathetic situation today.

But now the price of that mistake must be paid.

I suspect the church of my youth in St. John’s will not recover from this debacle.

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