Anger over Abuse Must Be Transformed into Useful Energy

By Harris, David | Anglican Journal, October 1999 | Go to article overview

Anger over Abuse Must Be Transformed into Useful Energy


Harris, David, Anglican Journal


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. …

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