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April 15, 2002

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Man. Oblates seek bankruptcy protection


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 in B.C.

“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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