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2000-03-31 00:22
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Bishop accuses Canadian government of pushing church to
bankruptcy
ENI-00-0122

By Ferdy Baglo
Vancouver, 29 March (ENI)--The highest-ranking Anglican bishop
in British Columbia has claimed that action by Canadian
government lawyers could force the Anglican Church of Canada's
general synod into bankruptcy.

The bishop's claims relate to legal action against churches and
the federal government by thousands of indigenous Canadians who
allegedly suffered physical and sexual abuse in residential
schools run by the Anglican and other churches on behalf of the
government until the 1960s.

Archbishop David Crawley, Metropolitan of British Columbia and
the Yukon, told ENI that two cases were about to come before the
Supreme Court in British Columbia. Seven of the eight plaintiffs
were suing the government, not the church. But the government's
legal tactic of diverting the blame to the church could force the
church into bankruptcy.

The government was "third-partying" the Anglican Church, the
archbishop said. Asked by ENI what this meant, he replied: "The
implication is just like us being named by the plaintiff. We have
to defend ourselves. What happens though is that you end up
defending yourself, not against the plaintiff, but against the
government - because the government is putting forward claims
that we are to blame."

In a statement issued by the Anglican Church on 21 March,
Archbishop Crawley, who chairs the church's residential schools
steering committee, said the government was acting in a
short-sighted and counter-productive manner in its approach to
residential schools lawsuits, and its lawyers were behaving in an
aggressive and uncoordinated fashion.

He added that this "will make it vastly more difficult for the
church to contribute to long-term healing efforts".

"On the one hand, the government says it wants us to be part of
alternative dispute resolution [ADR] processes," Archbishop
Crawley said. "On the other, their lawyers are suing everything
in sight - even [musical] band councils. They say they want
healing, but their actions are dedicated mostly to limiting their
own liability through suing others."

The cases before the Supreme Court are linked to court rulings
made seven years ago. Derek Clarke, a federal government employee
and residence supervisor at St George's residential school in
Lytton, British Columbia, was gaoled in 1993 after being
convicted of sexually abusing a man who had been a student at the
school 30 years earlier.

Last year the Supreme Court in British Columbia ruled that the
federal government was liable for 40 per cent of the undisclosed
damages in the case. The Anglican Church's general synod and the
Anglican Diocese of the Cariboo were found jointly liable for 60
per cent of the damages.

Archbishop Crawley told ENI that the lawsuits in court this
month "are all arising out of the actions of the same abuser.
[The plaintiffs] are all men who are claiming abuse by him. I
think there is no question about the fact that they were abused.
They were part of the criminal proceedings against Clarke. There
is no question about that. The trial is about the amount of the
judgement and who will pay it."

For almost a century, until 1960, four churches - Anglican,
Presbyterian, Roman Catholic and United Church - ran 130 native
residential schools on behalf of the federal government. The
Anglican Church statement explained that 7000 former students of
residential schools were suing the federal government, asking
compensation for cultural, physical and sexual abuse in the
schools.

About a quarter of the cases involve the Anglican Church of
Canada, whose national mission body administered 24 schools under
contract to the government. But in many cases it is the
government, not the native plaintiff, who is suing the church.

If the government involved the church in these other cases,
Archbishop Crawley said "we will not be able to participate in
alternative dispute resolution processes or to promote healing.
It's a short-sighted strategy on the government's part, because
if they force us to bankruptcy, they'll be left carrying the
whole weight by themselves.

"The total income of our national church wouldn't pay the
[federal government] cabinet's salary for a year," he told ENI.
"We don't know what is next. The lawsuits are proceeding in their
own slow way in a number of dioceses. Each is moving according to
the court system. The diocese of Qu'Appelle has about 200
plaintiffs; the diocese of Huron, in south western Ontario, has
something like 900.

"One has to distinguish in these matters between the kinds of
claims that are being made," the archbishop said. "There are
claims related to the systemic evil of the schools. That is to
say, claims that are related to the fact that the schools were
run by the church on behalf of the government, paid for by the
government as an instrument of assimilation. [This] government
policy was widely accepted in the community as a whole * no one
questioned the rightness of it. Those are the claims related to
things like loss of language, loss of culture, loss of home life.
Neither the church nor the government has accepted any
responsibility in those cases. None of these have been abuse
situations.

"There are a great many [other] cases that claim [sexual] abuse,
and there are some that claim both [cultural and sexual] abuse."

"We have to distinguish," Archbishop Crawley said, "in our
response as a church and the wider response of the government and
society between the two kinds of evil." Those persons who
sexually abused children had to go through the courts. The issue
of cultural evils was more difficult "because they are not
concepts under law".

"We are doing everything we can on our end to clarify our
situation," he said. "Our policy is that we first of all seek
reconciliation and healing - our highest priority. Our second
priority is to preserve in some form or another the community of
the faithful so that the healing and reconciliation can be
pursued. We may have to sell buildings and use rented facilities
to do that, but the church existed a long time before buildings
and assets. We can do that again.

"Our national church is rapidly depleting all its assets.
[Most] assets are held either by the parish or the dioceses. So
it's rapidly getting to the point where it won't be able to meet
the demands."

The archbishop told ENI: "The thing about it that is most
serious from our point of view is that many hundreds of thousands
of dollars are going to be spent or have been spent and more will
be spent on legal fees. [We are] grinding our way through the
court system. We are kind of helpless.

"What we would like to do is spend the money that we are
spending [on legal fees] on healing and reconciliation - and
compensation. We end up spending two or three or four times as
much on legal fees as we spend on compensation to the victims."

Archbishop Crawley believes church members would make
substantial contributions to healing efforts if they knew the
money would be used to help victims. "But if members feel their
donations are only going to pay legal fees, they'll choose to
place their charitable dollars somewhere else. As a national
body, with thousands of Aboriginal members, we have a significant
capacity to contribute substantially to reconciliation between
the First Nations and other Canadians. Instead, we're heading for
bankruptcy, fighting government claims against us."

It was ironic, he said, that "the church may have to seek early
bankruptcy protection as a way of channelling its dwindling
resources toward plaintiffs rather than to the lawyers who
represent them. That's not meant to be disrespectful of lawyers,
but, as things stand, legal fees have first claim on any
settlements we make. The plaintiffs get only what's left over.
After a relatively few cases we'll be bankrupt and unable to
respond to the just claims of other victims."

On 23 March Toronto's National Post newspaper published a
response to the archbishop's claims written by Lynne Boyer, an
official in the federal department of Indian affairs. "The
intention is not to drive [the churches] into bankruptcy, but
they are also liable and responsible for some of the things that
occurred at these schools, in that they were the presence at
these schools.

"Ultimately the focus is on survivors and on healing and
correcting what was a serious, serious wrong," according to
Boyer. "There were horrible things that went on in those schools
- small children being sexually abused - what could be worse? Now
we are in litigation and Canada is fully prepared to accept and
deal with its responsibility, but the churches have
responsibility and liability as well."

She said the department was more concerned with the victims of
abuse than with the financial health of the churches.

Archbishop Crawley said that the government should sit down with
Aboriginal and church organisations to explore other approaches
to resolving the residential schools legacy. "Nobody we've
talked to wants to see Canada's churches crippled by this. Not
the native people, not the Canadian public at large, not even the
government.

"One way or another, all the lawsuits will eventually be
finished," Archbishop Crawley said. "But they won't bring us any
closer to reconciliation. Lawsuits can't do that. We have to find
better options."