Sunday, May 30, 2010

Antigonish diocese to sell property to settle $18.5M sex case

Amid the rolling hills of Mabou, Nova Scotia, a tall white steeple emerges.

Not far away, on the road that winds along the western side of Cape Breton Island stands a long wooden building, nondescript to the unfamiliar eye but an anchor in the community of 1,214 people: the parish hall.

Inside St. Mary’s parish hall is the stage where the Rankin Family band, a bastion of Canadiana, played its first show. It’s where the community comes together to celebrate weddings and birthdays, concerts and dances.

But now, because of a deal struck last year by Raymond Lahey, once the Catholic bishop of the Diocese of Antigonish and since charged with possessing child pornography, the diocese is putting about 400 properties up for sale to pay an $18.5-million sexual-abuse settlement.

It’s a deal that threatens to bankrupt the mostly rural diocese.

The properties range from community halls and unused rectories to unoccupied houses and vacant land.

The diocese, which comprises 90 parishes, has yet to release the exact slate of holdings to be sold but has made it clear that parish halls, such as Mabou’s, are on the list — and the communities are infuriated.

“They’re angry and they feel like they have no control and they have no power,” said Father Paul Abbass, spokesman for the diocese. “It is about land and property and money. But deeper beneath this it’s still very much about feeling betrayed by the church. ‘We didn’t do anything wrong. we don’t really seem to have a say here, it’s just being imposed on us.’ They’re right.”

The diocese encompasses seven counties of northeastern Nova Scotia: three on the mainland (Antigonish, Pictou and Guysborough), and four on the island (Inverness, Richmond, Victoria and Cape Breton counties).

Churches, cemeteries and rectories still being used will not be sold. “We’re not trying to liquidate all our properties. We’re trying to get the money that’s required to meet the obligations of a lawsuit,” Fr. Abbass said.

When the decision to pay the settlement was made, Fr. Abbass said the first step was to take the liquid assets of the parishes and pool them, keeping aside what the parishes needed for operations.

That amounted to about $6-million, he said, leaving the collection of properties to raise the remaining $12.5-million.

The deal, announced just weeks before the bishop was charged, includes a $15-million settlement reached last August with victims of sexual abuse from the 1950s to 2009, as well as a $3-million settlement for six other claimants, who came forward after the original settlement.

At the time, it was hailed as the first time the Roman Catholic Church agreed to compensate, without fighting the claims in court, victims who said they were sexually abused by priests.

Ronald Rankin, the only member of his famous family who still lives in Mabou year-round, said selling the hall, likely for development, will leave the community without a place to congregate.

“It’s something that belongs to the community, not the diocese. The diocese had nothing to do with building this hall or maintaining it,” he said.

“They even sucked $100,000-some out of the parish. What a sin. Maybe sell off a few statues in Rome.”