Anger over abuse must be transformed into useful energy

Published October 1, 1999

THE FIRST decision is out in the hundreds of suits filed by former students who say they were abused at Indian residential schools staffed by the Anglican Church. A B.C. judge found the church vicariously liable as an employer of the perpetrator, guilty of negligence and in breach of the trust that it would care for the children. (Several children were abused although there was only one plaintiff in this case.)

Reaction to the judgment ranges from anger the church tried to defend itself to anger it didn’t defend itself better. Anglicans across the country are wondering if they will have a church in 25 years; some think the demise of the institution would be good, others see it as sad at best, abysmal stewardship at worst.

In the midst of it all, there are victims, lawyers and guilt.

It’s a truism to say the situation is complex.

At the heart of the matter are people who were supposed to be cared for and were horrifically sexually abused. That needs to be said with no ifs ands or buts. It was wrong by the measure of any age – 19th century, 20th century; 1950s repressive or 1960s liberal.

The Lytton case was never about whether abuse happened. That was already settled in a criminal trial. As a result, the amount of damages sought by the victim as a plaintiff in a subsequent civil lawsuit was agreed on before the trial. The case was about who should pay, the federal government or the church?

The church argued that it hadn’t owned the school since the late 1920s, the Department of Indian Affairs did. Moreover, when the abuse in question took place in the 1970s, the perpetrator of the crime was a federal public servant, not a church employee.

For its part, the federal government agreed it was partly liable for the wrongdoing, but suggested the church was liable as well. There are two broad aspects for Anglicans, the emotional and the legal.

On the legal side, the first question is why the church proceeded to court in the first place. Neither the judge nor apparently the current bishop of Cariboo, according to the judgment, could believe the bishop of the time didn’t know that there was something wrong. Along with other evidence, the common person’s reaction would be that the church was guilty as charged.

More troubling are undenied, unconfirmed rumours that Ottawa offered to settle with the church before the trial on the basis of the church paying about 20 per cent of the damages sought. If this is close to true, even more explanations are needed.

The second question is why was the national church involved? It could not be ascertained by press time whether the General Synod followed through with its initial request to be dismissed from the case. (The plaintiff naturally cast the net wide and named the national church at the outset.) Since the school was not among those taken over by the national church’s missionary society, there is no obvious reason why it should be involved. People may protest that we are all tarred by the same brush in these matters. That is an emotional argument, not a legal one.

All this is not to say the emotional aspect of the case should be ignored. Indeed, it must be acknowledged. Emotions are as much a part of us as our reason and, in these cases, keep us from losing sight of the battered humanity of the victims.

Many people in the church are angry at the institution. Temperatures in Internet discussion groups have risen lately with the heat of frustration and anger over the church’s complicity in these matters. There are those who think the church should not be trying to defend itself in court.

There is also anger that builds in such situations against the victims and their lawyers. Regina’s Bishop Wallace raises a concern about this in a pastoral letter to his diocese of Qu’Appelle. Residential school lawsuits could cripple his diocese and he is worried this creates an opportunity for racism.

Anger in such cases is unsurprising. In fact, it is a good thing in measure. It is a problem, though, when important decisions are made by angry people.

The anger needs to be transformed into useful energy. Of all institutions, the church ought to be able to give a constructive lead here.

Part of the transformation depends on the guilty parties admitting to the wrong. Someone has to say “sorry.”

It is true and important that Primate Michael Peers said sorry on behalf of the church several years ago. It bears repeating. How long do we keep saying sorry? As long as there are people suffering from the crimes committed. As long as we need to say it so that we truly grasp the horror of what happened. As long as we say, “but there were good people too” before we fully acknowledge the evil their colleagues did. As long as we try to find excuses for individuals today who abuse within the structure of the church.

It is remarkable how many people in the church are willing to let a person harm another if the perpetrator is thought to have done great things for the church.

There is a whiff of that in the story about Dr. Lynn Bauman in this issue. It has and continues to be the case with numerous high-profile church leaders who fall. Sadly, for them, their victims and the church, supporters are often unwilling to accept the truth. The result is that those perpetrators may never face the horror of their deeds. Until they do that, how can they seek forgiveness? They will continue to blame their victims, shifting responsibility from where it belongs.

It is a serious question whether and how some offenders might be rehabilitated. But that has to wait until we are first of all clear as an institution that these people did great harm.

So what are we to do with and for the victims of crimes committed under the church’s care? For now, the church’s healing fund seems the best answer. It provides ways for the victims and their communities to begin the process of healing as they determine is best.

What about the church? Should its assets be liquidated?

If it happens, the real church – the body of faithful Christians – will certainly survive. God is able to bring good out of hardship. But surely God is equally able to guide us through these difficulties without destroying the institution. That would harm many people, both the spiritually and physically deprived that the church, in different ways, tries to help.

In the end, there are no winners in this painful drama. Many, probably most, people who worked in residential schools meant and did good. Many people worked hard and faithfully throughout the church to raise money over the years to support what they believed was a good cause and with care for the children uppermost in their hearts.

Sadly, the tears of pain will blur our vision about any good done until the hurt subsides.


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