What should happen to a church whose existence invokes horrible memories for so many people?
That question is at the center of a controversy taking place in the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador.
The Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Portugal Cove-St. Philip’s has been around in its current form for over 100 years, but like so many churches, membership is dwindling and it’s in the process of being sold. It could become a new community center where members of the community could gather for secular reasons—which sounds amazing—but doing so comes with a very serious downside.
To make sense of this story, you need to know what happened at the Mount Cashel Orphanage, in the same province, beginning in the 1950s. This was an institution run by the Congregation of Christian Brothers, a Catholic order, and the site of rampant physical and sexual abuse. In 2020, a Canadian court found that the Archdiocese of St. John’s was legally and financially liable for that abuse, even though they didn’t directly employ the Christian Brothers, because they created an environment where that kind of abuse could thrive. The end result was that the archdiocese was on the hook for millions and millions of dollars in payout to survivors of the abuse.
How do they get all that cash? One way is by liquidating their assets. Sell off buildings. Use the money to pay the victims.
That’s what’s happening as we speak, and the Holy Rosary Catholic Church is one of the many churches on the market. (Want to buy a Catholic church? Here’s your chance!)
Enter a coalition of well-intentioned groups hoping to transform the church into a new community gathering place, local museum, and creative arts center all in one. In order to make that a reality, they would need to raise enough money to buy the church and its surroundings properties and then get to work rebuilding the space. If you look at the plan, it seems like a fantastic idea, turning a church into something that’s… well… useful again.
There are just two problems with that plan.
First, Holy Rosary itself was a site of sexual abuse. In the 1980s, a priest named James Hickey molested several boys in that church and others in the archdiocese. He was found guilty of sexual assault and “gross indecency and sentenced to five years in jail. He died in 1992. All of that is to say the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal affects people living in this very community. Taking care of victims, then, ought to be a major priority when it comes to the fate of this church.
Second, by getting the local government to transform this church into a community center, and rallying everyone behind the cause, it could prevent other bidders from making potentially higher offers… which could ultimately mean less money paid out to victims.
That latter concern is what Gavin Will, a town council member, is worried about.
Will admits he’s the lone dissenting voice on council but he is opposed to approving municipal heritage status for the church, because such a designation comes with strict limitations on what alterations can be made to the site.
“This will limit the attractiveness of the property to potential buyers and negatively affect the amount of money the victims could receive,” said Will.
He’s also opposed to using tax dollars to help the committee, since others may also come forward hoping to buy the property before the June 2 deadline for bids.
“Are we going to say no to them, if we say yes to this to this group? We have to treat everybody equally. And I don’t think that is the place for council to become involved,” he said.
All of this boils down to what should take priority: Victims of Church-based sexual abuse getting as much financial justice as they possibly can… or converting the church into something meaningful for the community, which may decrease the payments those victims get?
The CBC quoted a parishioner at Holy Rosary who didn’t want the church converted to anything because she sees it as her religious home… but it’s hard to take that opinion seriously when it would mean doing even less for the victims of abuse. Those parishioners can find a new church. The victims can never get their lives back.
Perhaps the solution is to see if there are outside bidders willing to purchase the property for its maximum value before moving forward with the community center. It might delay things for a couple of months, but it would allow the process to play out before a permanent change takes place. It’s not like the dream of a community center dies if one piece of property is off the table. But the last things the victims need is for another group of people to shove them aside.