The Lethbridge Herald

Saturday, January 22, 2000

Suing Worldwide Roman Catholic Church?

An attempt earlier this month by a northern Alberta Catholic diocese to have its parent body in Rome removed from a series of residential school lawsuits in Alberta has failed for now.

In a ruling released Friday, Justice R.E. Nation of Calgary Court of Queen's Bench rejected a request from the Catholic Archdiocese of Grouard-McLennan to take the Roman Catholic Church off the list of five defendants named in residential school lawsuits in Alberta. Lawyers representing the diocese said the church, with headquarters in Rome, is not a legal entity capable of being sued.

But Justice Nation said it's premature to decide whether the larger church body should be held liable along with the local diocese and Catholic orders which operated the schools.

"In my view, the cross-examination makes it clear that various bodies within the Roman Catholic Church -- the Pope, the Holy See and the Curia, to name a few -- have religious authority over various individuals within the applicant organization and may have been involved, in some fashion, in the operation or supervision of the schools," wrote the judge.

But the decision must wait for discovery and document production and may have to be argued in trial, she said.

The application was a test case which will apply to all residential school lawsuits in Alberta.

At least 2,000 aboriginal people, including more than 500 from the Blood and Peigan Reserves, are claiming millions of dollars in damages from the Catholic and Anglican churches and their orders for physical and sexual abuse they say they suffered at the school, as well as lack of an education and broad cultural destruction, in some instances.

Calgary lawyer Vaughn Marshall, who represents many of the Southern Alberta aboriginals with Lethbridge lawyer Rhonda Ruston, says the issue of the liability of the international body of the Catholic Church has never been raised before. This appears to be the first time it has been named as a defendant in a lawsuit in Canada, he says.

Marshal say the judgment means they should have access to documents directly from Rome which show how and why the schools were established, as well as which levels of the church received money for operating the schools, and made decisions about the operations.

"We have believed all along responsibility for the schools needs to be put where it belongs," says Ruston.

Marshall told Justice Nation that to suggest the longest standing organization in western civilization, that has lasted 2000 years, with 265 CEOs and two billion adherents, can't be called to account would be to bring the administration of justice into disrepute.

But the lawyer representing the Missionary Oblates - Grandin Province which includes most Oblates in the province says he doubts any documents related to the schools are located in Rome. They're all in Ottawa with the federal department of Indian Affairs or with the local diocese, says Frans Slatter of McCuaig Desrochiers in Edmonton.

As for the responsibility of the larger church, "It's doubtful if the Pope in 1910 even knew the (Alberta) schools existed," he says.

"Given the level of communication of the time and the distances involved, it's unlikely that schools in western Canada were being run from Rome." The church was always interested in Catholic education but the local diocese is the legal body responsible for the schools and the courts will rule that in the end, he says.