When will church learn lessons about abuse scandals?

Published October 1, 2007

Despite the high-profile controversy over church-run native residential schools in the last decade, it seems that certain quarters in the church still have some lessons to learn about: 1) their work with vulnerable groups; and 2) their association with groups that operate – or appear to operate – under the aegis of the Anglican Church of Canada.

Allegations of physical and psychological abuse at Grenville Christian College – a private school which educated day and boarding students from junior kindergarten through Grade 12 – will continue to reverberate for some time across the country, especially in the diocese of Ontario, based in Kingston, Ont. (Please see news story, p. 1.)

(One law firm announced it was drafting a class action lawsuit after being contacted by “over 1,000” – perhaps an exaggeration – potential plaintiffs, though the suit had not been filed, nor were any defendants named, as of press time.)

Grenville closed its doors July 31, citing declining enrolment, changing demographics and increased operating costs. At the same time, though, former students, mostly those who attended the school in the 1980s, were sharing on an online message board stories of physical abuse and strange psychological and cultish practices at the school. It was only weeks later that a national newspaper reported on the claims of abuse.

One former Ontario bishop told the newspaper he had heard allegations from former staff members of cult practices at the school but he had not been aware that students might have been involved. The current bishop, meanwhile, issued a “pastoral letter” about the situation that seemed utterly devoid of any “pastoral” sentiment.

Initially, when the story broke in the secular media, the church tried to distance itself from the school, saying there was “no direct relationship at all between the Anglican Church of Canada and Grenville Christian College.” Yes, church officials said, three of the former headmasters were Anglican priests, including the most recent holder of that office, but they were there in a private capacity. Yes, the school used Anglican prayer books and hymnbooks, but it used other forms of worship too. Yes, bishops and other Anglican church dignitaries presided at ceremonial functions, but church officials are invited to many events.

It is all too reminiscent of the residential schools system, which saw Canada’s mainline denominations – including the Anglican church – operate boarding schools on behalf of a federal government that was implementing a nationwide policy of assimilation of aboriginal people. Although many former caring staff argue they were only serving their church and doing what they thought was best for native children, the system itself is now widely acknowledged as a disaster – one that is at the root of many social problems in native communities today.

When the litigation against the church began in the 1990s, the church’s defense was that the schools were not theirs: they ran them at the request of the government. That claim did not sit well with some former students who associated the schools with churches and the church members who were in charge.

What lessons should the church have learned from the residential schools affair?

For one, the church ought to be scrupulous about the groups with whom it associates. Regardless of whether the Anglican church was a founding body of Grenville, there appeared to be a close relationship between church and school that was cemented with the regular worship “in the Anglican tradition” in the school’s chapel, with the regular visits from church dignitaries and the Anglican flag that flew on the campus. Any rumours of misconduct at the institution should have been investigated. It was not a matter of whether the school was an Anglican school, it was thought of as such and the church must protect its integrity and care for society’s most vulnerable members.

Additionally, an Anglican priest on leave is still a priest. Although the allegations have not been proven in court, the strange stories about cultish practices at the school did reach the diocese; failure by the diocese to investigate those claims when the school headmaster was a member of the clergy seems pure folly.

A week or so after the story broke in the media, the church did make an effort to redeem itself. By mid-September, it appeared to be making more of a pastoral effort, with the bishop meeting with former students to hear their complaints and the diocese launching an investigation of the incidents.

The lessons were there for the church. Will it learn from this event?


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