Man. Oblates seek bankruptcy protection
By LAUREEN McMAHON
The Oblates of Mary Immaculate in Manitoba are seeking bankruptcy
protection so their remaining priests will not face a destitute old age,
says Father James Fiori, the order’s provincial superior.
The action had to be taken because the order can no longer afford to pay
for litigation arising from Indian residential school abuse claims without
putting the future of their remaining priests in jeopardy, he explained.
The congregation’s auditor, said Father Fiori, has advised them that, at
the current rate of spending, their resources will be fully depleted by
2006, leaving 58 priests, all of whom took a vow of poverty and hold no
assets, at risk of finding themselves “on the street and wards of the
state.” Of these priests, 39 of them over 70, only three ever had any
involvement in the residential schools and no member of the order has ever
been charged in connection with residential school abuse, he said.
In a telephone interview from Winnipeg with Canadian Catholic News on
April 9, Father Fiori said the order has paid more than $1 million in legal
fees since 1999, without taking compensation payments into consideration.
The Manitoba Oblates operated 12 Indian residential schools until the
early 1970s, and they are expecting to be named in about 2,500 of the
estimated 9,000 residential school lawsuits filed across Canada. Their
potential liability is estimated at $270 million.
On April 9, the Oblate council voted to seek protection under the
Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act. Under this act, the Oblates still must
convince the court, the federal government, the priests, and the residential
school claimants to accept a restructuring proposal that would allow them to
escape from the potential liability of the lawsuits. The plan must be
approved by two-thirds of the order’s creditors.
If not, bankruptcy will result, said Father Bernard Pinet, Oblate
vice-provincial. The order has offered to contribute $200,000 to a healing
fund and to continue ministering to native people under the scheme.
Father Fiori said the order has not yet heard from Deputy Prime Minister
John Manley on the request for a meeting with the federal government.
“They (the government) know how to find us to sue us and put our names on
litigation, but when it comes to looking for money, they want the whole
Church to get involved, and that’s not likely.”
The federal government has argued that the Catholic Church as a whole
across all of Canada, not individual religious congregations or
organizations, should be involved. The Catholic response is that there is no
such legal entity as the Catholic Church of Canada, and therefore other
groups of Canadians who simply profess the same faith cannot be held legally
responsible for anything they were not involved in.
Oblates in Alberta have said they may also be forced to seek bankruptcy
protection if the government doesn’t help them meet the lawsuit claims faced
by the order’s Grandin province.
“The costs are prohibitive,” Father Camille Piche, provincial superior of
the Alberta Oblates, told the Western Catholic Reporter. They have been
paying in excess of $600,000 a year for the past two years in legal fees.
Alberta Oblates are directly named in about 1,200 lawsuits from native
people claiming that they were sexually, physically, and emotionally abused
at residential schools.
There has yet to be even one settlement.
The Manitoba Oblates are the second religious organization to face
insolvency in the face of residential school lawsuits. In December, the
Anglican Diocese of Cariboo, which has 17 parishes, went bankrupt.
Father Vincent LaPlante, OMI vicar provincial for St. Paul’s Province,
which covers B.C., told The B.C. Catholic that he doesn’t foresee anything
similar to what is taking place in Manitoba or Alberta happening to Oblates
“We were involved in far fewer schools under contract with the government
and have had a limited number of cases affect us, with a limited number of
settlements,” he said.
With wire services.
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