Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of January 19, 2004
Court decision worries church
By ART BABYCH
Canadian Catholic News
The charity work of the Catholic Church and Catholic organizations in Canada could be crippled if the Supreme Court of Canada rules that the Church can be sued, says lawyer William Sammon.
Such a decision would mean, "every Catholic organization, whether it's corporate or unincorporated, whether it's lay or religious will be subject to being sued as one corporate entity," Sammon said in a CCN interview Jan. 12. That would "expose the assets of all of these charitable organizations to the endless liability involved in the Indian residential school litigation and other litigation," he added.
Sammon is representing the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) in a case to be heard by the high court Jan. 15 on whether the Church can retain the legal immunity it has enjoyed for about 150 years.
Two years ago the Episcopal Corporation of St. George's asked the court to hear its appeal of a Newfoundland Court of Appeal ruling the diocese is responsible for sexual abuses committed by a Father Kevin Bennett. The priest pleaded guilty in the 1990s to more than 30 counts of sexual assault and was sentenced to four years in prison.
The Justice Department argues in its submission to the court that a factor to be taken into account in reaching a decision "is the incidence of sexual abuse and the Roman Catholic Church's response to date." The department says abuse victims have had difficulty finding sufficient assets to satisfy judgments in their favour because of the inability to sue the Church as a whole.
The Church has consistently argued that the government should negotiate with the Catholic Church organizations that operated the schools on contract to the federal government - rather than the Catholic Church.
Sammon said the main point the CCCB will be making focuses on the suability of the Church. "We're taking the position that it is not a suable entity," he said. The Church is simply its members which number more than one billion worldwide."
However the government counters that the Catholic Church bears responsibility for the former students' claims against Catholic organizations. But two court decisions in recent years found that the Catholic Church is not an ecclesiastical entity capable of being sued.
The Holy See is a sovereign state that can enter into treaties with other countries called "concordats,"(agreements) for the purpose of recognizing the legal personality of the church itself, said Sammon. The Canadian government has never requested a concordat with the Holy See "therefore the Church has never been recognized in Canada as a legal personality," he added. That was the reason why the Church had to incorporate its dioceses and other organizations in order to conduct its temporal affairs.
"Every Catholic organization will be subject to being sued as one corporate entity,"
- William Sammon
"Now because it's not convenient for the federal government, they want to simply ignore all of that and treat the Church as one huge entity, mainly because of the Indian residential schools."