Anger, betrayal in Antigonish

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Diocese to sell property to settle $18.5M sex case

National Post

29 May 2010

Katherine Laidlaw,  National Post 

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.”

Robb Kell, former parish council chairman of St. Ninian Cathedral, the diocese’s largest congregation, said his community is frustrated by the binding nature of the court order, particulary because of Bishop Lahey’s involvement in spearheading the settlement.

“Unfortunately given the situation, we don’t really have any choice,” Mr. Kell said. “It certainly comes up on a regular basis. I think there’s some underlying anger in the first place, at the man who made the deal now being charged with possessing child pornography. I don’t see how anybody could not be angry at that situation.”

Fr. Abbass said that while some of the diocese’s properties, such as land on the Bras d’Or Lakes and vacant land in more developed areas, are marketable, it will be a struggle to sell so many properties in more rural areas of the province. “We believe that the land we hold has the value that we need to meet our goal,” he said. “I would be kidding you to say it’s not a challenging situation in small areas to sell that many properties.”

The land will be put on the market in groups, not all at once, to avoid a glut. The diocese is hiring a professional to oversee the process, he said.

It’s clear, however, that for the diocese to survive, the sales must go through. “If we were unable to raise the funds that we need to raise and we have an agreement with the courts, then it is quite possible for [bankruptcy] to happen. That’s the very thing we’re working 100% to avoid,” Fr. Abbass said. “I don’t know what the alternatives would be.”

Parishes will be given first right to bid on any property that was previously theirs. “That’s another bitter pill: to say to people we need to pool all your available assets. Then we need to sell your land or hall. But if the parish wants to buy it back, they can,” Fr. Abbass said.

For the mostly Catholic residents of Mabou, losing their hall would be a devastating blow. “We’re a dying community here too. People are leaving. No young people stay around here anymore,” Mr. Rankin said, adding that he didn’t know whether the community would buy back the hall if it’s sold. “It’s a very sad day.”

klaidlaw@nationalpost.com

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