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RUSSELL WANGERSKY: Mount Cashel — the end of wrangling

The now-demolished Mount Cashel Orphanage in St. John's.
The now-demolished Mount Cashel Orphanage in St. John’s. — Telegram file photo

In 1989, I was pretty new to Newfoundland and Labrador, one of a handful of reporters at the weekly Sunday Express when the paper brought the first full details of the Mount Cashel abuse scandal to light.

I wasn’t one of the lead reporters on Mount Cashel. I kept track of files and wrote some articles — and, even then, editorials on the topic — but the heavy emotional lifting was done by editor Michael Harris and other reporters. We were a small enough group, though, to all be involved one way or another.

My main memory of that time was when a group of four or five former Mount Cashel residents would come to meet with Harris and reporter Philip Lee. How the young men would take a break and go outside the back door of the paper and gather in a small, cold huddle to smoke. How they always looked like they were all dressed too lightly for the wet winter cold of St. John’s.

And also how, close to my own age, they weren’t that much different from me.

Some of them are dead now, so think about where we are: litigation against the Brothers and the Roman Catholic Church over Mount Cashel abuse has run for more than 30 years, outliving some of the first young men brave enough to come forward.

Those young men had plenty of reasons not to talk. After all, the entire child protection system had chosen to quash the first investigation into complaints made on their behalf in the interest of protecting the reputation of the Irish Christian Brothers and the orphanage.

Litigation against the Brothers and the Roman Catholic Church over Mount Cashel abuse has run for more than 30 years, outliving some of the first young men brave enough to come forward.

Police, the provincial government, the church: all united on the other side.

It’s a lot to challenge.

So why raise it again now? This week the Supreme Court of Canada turned down arguments by the church that it couldn’t be held financially responsible for a different group of men abused at the same facility in the 1950s and ’60s. The church had argued that, because the Roman Catholic Church didn’t handle the day-to-day operations of the orphanage, and because the Brothers were a lay order, not ordained members of clergy, the church didn’t bear legal responsibility.

There are about 60 people involved in the latest and, perhaps, last case, but the millions of dollars of damages awarded by a decision in the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador weren’t fully paid after the Christian Brothers declared bankruptcy. (That same decision originally agreed that the Roman Catholic Episcopal Corporation would not have to pay damages — that was overturned by the province’s Court of Appeal, and the Court of Appeal’s version was upheld when the Supreme Court of Canada refused to hear the church’s appeal on Thursday.)

So, here we are.

Years upon years of damage to children, followed by years upon years of legal foot-dragging. No doubt, there are many more abused young men than I know about who have died without ever seeing the church do the right thing of its own volition, or having seen the justice system recognize the full legal liability of an entire child protection system that was decidedly stacked against them.

It is, frankly, hard to believe that anyone among the victims could stand that strain for that many years. Hard to believe that those who have lived on, haven’t lived scarred lives in the process.

A final answer to this legal challenge is a good thing: it may put some ghosts to rest.

But there are ghosts who did not live to see this day, and I doubt that they rest easily.

I met some of them, years ago when they were alive.

It has taken so damned long.

Too damned long.

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in SaltWire newspapers and websites across Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at [email protected] — Twitter: @wangersky.


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