Appeal a chance to correct doubtful decisions

Published December 1, 1999

DECISIONS CAN be difficult when they involve competing priorities. The officers of General Synod have decided to appeal the first residential schools case involving the Anglican Church and, from their comments, it seems they faced such a dilemma.

The decision to appeal is right. The case was the first of its kind among several hundred and the judge made crucial errors in her ruling. Letting the decision stand might have set a seriously flawed precedent that could cripple the church. Set against that is how a decision to appeal would be viewed by Native Anglicans. The church desperately wants to bring about healing and reconciliation with Native people while making prudent and wise decisions for the future of the church. Both priorities need to be affirmed.

The judgment involved serious legal fiction. Among other things, Justice Janice Dillon failed to distinguish between the Diocese of Cariboo and the General Synod. It’s no more difficult to understand the church’s structure than the three tiers of government most Canadians have: federal, provincial and municipal. Each has its own responsibilities and no one thinks Ottawa collects the garbage each week.

Worse, the judge didn’t even acknowledge that it was a 300-year-old English missionary company — still based in London — that established the school, not the church.

As far as appearances go, the case was never about whether the victim was abused or owed damages in compensation. It wasn’t even about how much the damages were, but about who should pay. The judge decided all three parties, Ottawa and both church bodies, should share the blame. She blamed the church more, assigning it 60 per cent of the damages owed.

But Justice Dillon’s own summary provides no evidence of national church involvement in the school. That’s not surprising, since there wasn’t any. The local diocese and bishop were involved though. Lytton was a parish in the diocese and the bishop had influence in nominating the principal who was sometimes a priest. Whether that is sufficient involvement to warrant sharing responsibility for the crimes of a child caregiver at the school is the real question.

Not that the national church’s strategy helped. It appeared to fumble the case by sharing a lawyer with the Diocese of Cariboo — apparently as a way to show solidarity with a diocese of limited financial resources. Here was a case of making the wrong decision for good reasons, of failing to separate the competing priorities.

The national church should show support for a diocese in trouble. Where one member of the body is affected, all are affected. But there are other more prudent ways of showing solidarity.

The same applies to concern about how the appeal might be viewed by Natives. This case was never about the church versus Natives or a Native person. It was about who should pay — and the church has already paid its share despite launching the appeal.

Church leaders would do well to encourage dialogue in the church between Natives and non-natives. They also need to emphasize that every diocese in the church is affected by these court cases, and they need to reiterate that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, Native nor non-native.

Conflicting priorities also faced the Council of General Synod in a request to sell shares in Talisman, the Canadian oil company accused of aiding the vicious Sudanese government in the persecution of its own people, including many Christians. Investment managers of pension and trust funds are legally obliged to get the best return on the dollar for their shareholders.

Whether getting the approval of investors to take a loss on Talisman would satisfy regulators is one question. Another is whether shareholders, such as the church, send a stronger message to a company by protesting at shareholder meetings, by exercising proxy votes to try to change the board of directors or by publicizing selling the stock.

Whatever the final outcome, the church’s ethics consultant is likely to be busy helping council sail its way through difficult waters.


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