Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Diocese won’t be holding fire sale

The embattled Diocese of Antigonish has the assets to raise $18 million to compensate victims of sexual abuse, but the Roman Catholic Church will not engage in a "fire sale," a spokesman for the diocese says.

Rev. Paul Abbass confirmed that parishes in the rural diocese have been told everything is on the auction block, with the exception of "core assets," including churches and their rectories.

"We will not be putting our properties up just to get rid of them,"Abbass said. "In this market, whatever area it is, these are properties that we feel we can get fair value for."

Church lands, unoccupied homes and associated church halls face possible liquidation.

Last year, a historic $15-million class-action settlement was reached to compensate dozens of alleged victims of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests since the 1950s after a lawsuit was filed against the diocese and the Halifax archdiocese.

But Abbass said the church now hopes to raise $18.5 million because six claimants have come forward with private lawsuits.

The settlement will still provide $12 million to victims who claimed abuse at the hands of priests in the Antigonish diocese between 1950 and September 2009. Another $3.5 million has been set aside for legal fees and related costs.

If the total cost goes any higher, the Diocese of Antigonish could face bankruptcy, Abbass said.

"If we can’t reach the $18.5 million, then the risk to us is insolvency, which means that we don’t have any control over what we hold on to. That is the piece that we will certainly do everything we can to avoid."

Following the signing of the settlement agreement in August, the diocese turned to the banks for bridge financing until some assets could be liquidated.

But that financing evaporated when the man who brokered the settlement, Bishop Raymond Lahey, was charged with possession of child pornography in September.

His case is still before the courts.

"Everything shifted when the charges against Bishop Lahey were laid because the goodwill, a lot of people felt really betrayed by that. A lot of people felt there was a certain hypocrisy involved there."

The church is in the midst of pooling all of its available cash and investments from the diocese and its parishes. A catalogue of non-core properties is being produced and the first real estate holdings will be put on the market within months.

Abbass said the process of selling assets could take up to three years.

Parishes must turn over liquid assets accumulated up to Feb. 28, 2009, with the exception of a parish’s cemetery fund and $10,000 for operational costs.

Today, there will be plenty of pomp and ceremony when Bishop Brian Dunn is installed as the leader of the Antigonish diocese during a mass at St. Ninian’s Cathedral.

Bishop Dunn will replace Lahey, the man who angered many members of his flock when he said individual parishes had to help pay for a $15-million settlement the diocese reached with victims who were sexually assaulted by priests.

A few weeks after that announcement, Bishop Lahey was arrested.

Bishop Dunn, 54, becomes the ninth bishop of the diocese. Most recently, he served as an auxiliary bishop in the Diocese of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.

The colourful installation mass will take place in the Antigonish cathedral late Monday afternoon.

It will be attended by white-robed priests, bishops and a Knights of Columbus honour guard in feathered hats and capes lined with crimson, gold, white and purple satin.

They will carry their swords aloft as they accompany the new bishop up the aisle towards the altar.

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