The ordeal is finally over for the men of Mount Cashel Orphanage.
Since the late 1990s, a group of four anonymous plaintiffs has been battling the Catholic Archdiocese of St. John’s (in Newfoundland and Labrador) in search of compensation for physical and sexual abuse they endured as children, three-quarters of a century ago. Theirs was a test case for as many as 60 elderly men who faced similar experiences at Mount Cashel.
Last summer the Court of Appeals of Newfoundland and Labrador found the Archdiocese legally and financially liable. It was an important ruling because it forced the Church to take responsibility for the actions of its satellite organizations, paving the way for other abuse victims to pursue justice.
Previously, the Church had been able to place the responsibility on the religious organization that had run the orphanage, the Christian Brothers of Ireland. Although the Christian Brothers were a Catholic organization, they were technically not an arm of the Church proper the way a diocese or archdiocese would be. Because they were a lay organization that did not fall immediately under the governance of the Church hierarchy, the Church argued, their crimes were not the Church’s responsibility.
The Christian Brothers of Ireland went bankrupt in 2012 as a direct result of the sheer number of child abuse settlements they paid throughout the preceding decade. The defunct organization left behind masses of unpaid settlements, including those owed to the Mount Cashel survivors.
Never satisfied with anything that damages their optics or bank accounts, the Church called on Canada’s highest court to overturn the province’s decision on the Mount Cashel case. On Thursday, the Supreme Court of Canada announced that it had rejected the Church’s application and would not hear the case.
That’s the end of it. Case closed.
Allison Conway, a member of the plaintiffs’ legal team, told reporters that the Supreme Court’s decision has positive repercussions on a lot of different levels:
I think it brings a lot of hope for survivors of sexual abuse, that you can pursue justice and justice will be there for you. I just think it’s a tremendous precedent, here in our province but also across Canada… We still receive calls to this day for people who have been at Mount Cashel and suffered horrific things, and were never able to come forward. So in addition to the ones we know about, there could be many others who survived Mount Cashel and who this might be a precedent-setting decision for.
But it’s not just the victims of Mount Cashel or even victims of clerical abuse who stand to gain from the precedent this decision sets. Major institutions can now be held liable for the actions of individuals and organizations working for them, and future plaintiffs can point to Mount Cashel and the Christian Brothers as legal justification.
The Archdiocese of St. John’s has yet to comment on the case directly, but Archbishop Peter Hundt released a short statement declaring their “immense sympathy for those who suffered abuse” and requested prayers for the healing of all those who suffer as a result.