Nova Scotia Catholics prepare to sell land

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 National Post

14 February 2011

Elspeth Lodge, National Post · Monday, Feb. 14, 2011

Nova Scotia stands to lose much of its Catholic heritage and opportunities for future expansion as two of the province’s three dioceses prepare to sell real estate assets that will help compensate victims of sexual abuse.

Old rectories and houses belonging to the dioceses as well as undeveloped land on which future churches could have been built are hitting the market in order to pay the multi-million-dollar bill for crimes committed by priests who have been long dead.

They’re also struggling to avoid filing for bankruptcy, a move that could significantly limit the funds at the dioceses’ disposal.

While the sale of land and real estate will help speed up a lengthy process both the Diocese of Yarmouth and the Diocese of Antigonish wish to deal with and move on, it also comes at an emotional cost.

“People felt like they were paying for something they had nothing to do with,” Antigonish diocese spokesperson Father Paul Abbass said. “It will always be felt as a huge pain.”

After pooling liquid assets belonging to the parish and the diocese, the Antigonish church has so far sold about 10 valuable properties, totaling around $2-million. They’re still in the process of putting land and buildings on the market, said Fr. Abbass. But that only scratches the surface of what they owe for an $18.5-million settlement made in 2009 for a dozen cases of sexual abuse, with another $3-million settlement coming on its heels after six more claimants came forward.

In May 2010, they guessed about 400 properties could be sold — everything from community halls, unused rectories, unoccupied houses and vacant land. Now, the diocese is hoping to shed only 200 to 300 properties, which could bring in $10-to $12-million, Fr. Abbass said.

While bankruptcy is an option, it’s a drastic one they hope to avoid. They are also cautiously optimistic that they won’t have to resort to selling parish properties that are in use.

Parishioners found it difficult to sell even the empty land, Fr. Abbass said, adding that they “will experience a range of emotion” if their diocese begins to sell buildings to cover abuse settlements.

Still, there’s a feeling that the sales are worth it if they want a chance at a bright future, he said.

“I would like us to get past this. I would like to get to a place where this isn’t all we talk about.”

The Yarmouth diocese must pay about $1.5-million for six separate sexual abuse settlements after two priests sexually abused children from the 1950s through the 1970s in Digby and Yarmouth counties.

The church is now preparing to sell off assets to help pay out the victims, said Diocese of Yarmouth spokesperson Marilyn Sweet.

“As I understand it, the plan for paying out the settlement amounts is being developed and from that it will become clear if it will be necessary to sell properties, when that time will be right, and which ones will be put on the market first,” she said, adding that the diocese is looking to advisors for help.

According to Ms. Sweet, the Diocese of St. Georges, now part of Cornerbrook-Labrador City Diocese in Newfoundland is also selling properties to help pay settlements.

Victims’ lawyer Aaron Lealess said he didn’t discuss with the diocese how they’d pay for the individually negotiated settlements, but he did know land sales were a possibility.

He said his clients are using the settlements to provide a sense of “closure.”

The damage may not be over for the Nova Scotia church.

“The Diocese of Yarmouth has been facing more than 20 cases of sexual abuse,” the church said in a statement. “In all of these cases, the proffered process is to reach an appropriate settlement through negotiations in a process that is respectful of the victim and with fair consideration for the legal obligations of the Diocese.

”While some cases have been resolved through mediation, there are more to be negotiated through this process in the near future. It is important to allow the process to be followed for each case.”

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