Faced with the prospect of bankruptcy due to legal costs, the Anglican diocese of Cariboo, in western Canada, voted on October 14 to disband within 12 months.

Representatives of the diocese's 17 parishes, located along the Fraser and Thompson Rivers in north central British Columbia, met in Quesnel from October 13 to 15 to take the unprecedented decision in the face of a string of lawsuits related to abuse more than 30 years ago at St George's School, in Lytton.

David Crawley, Archbishop of the Anglican Province of British Columbia and the Yukon, which includes the Diocese of Cariboo, told ENI that until now no Canadian diocese and—as far as he knew—no Anglican diocese worldwide, had ever gone bankrupt.

St George's was founded by the New England Company, an independent mission agency based in England. It was eventually sold to the Canadian government, with the bishop of Cariboo retaining the right to nominate an Anglican priest as principal.

The Anglican Church of Canada (ACC) administered 26 residential schools for indigenous children in various parts of Canada from 1820 until 1969. Hundreds of former students of schools run by the ACC and other churches in co-operation with the federal government have in recent years claimed they were physically or sexually abused by school staff, and have initiated, or announced, legal action against the government and, in some cases, the churches. Often the federal government, sued by former students, has in turn taken legal action against the churches which ran the schools on its behalf.

The general synod of the 800,000-member Anglican Church of Canada has been named in about 1,600 lawsuits filed by former students who attended residential schools established by the federal government and administered by the church.

A former dormitory supervisor at St George's was convicted in 1993 of sexual abuse of students at the school. Following the conviction, a number of the victims launched lawsuits for damages against the federal government and, in some cases, against the church. Only one case has reached judgment in court—with the church found 60 per cent liable, and the federal government 40 percent. The case is now under appeal.

The Diocese of Cariboo is a defendant in another 14 cases.

Twelve of these cases are third-party actions brought against the church by the federal Department of Justice. The diocese has now informed the court that it can no longer afford to be represented in the continuing legal actions.

Archbishop Crawley said in his interview with ENI: "The chancellor [Bud Smith] of the diocese outlined [at the synod meeting] the legal and financial position of the diocese in very frank and honest terms." Smith had told the synod: "The diocese of Cariboo is broke. Spiritually we may be yeast, but financially we are toast."

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"The diocese is no longer taking part in any settlement discussion because it has no money," Crawley told ENI. "In the last two years, the diocese has spent $350,000 Canadian dollars on legal fees."

The Bishop of Cariboo, Jim Cruikshank, told the synod gathering: "I believe God has chosen this funny old church, this so-called 'establishment church', this church that offers prayers at city council meetings and war memorials—God has chosen us and decided to do some pruning. And I believe we will grow back more compassionately than we could ever have imagined possible because we will know what it's like to be powerless. We don't know what the future holds, but we know God will be with us."

The synod passed "empowering motions" enabling the local bishop and executive committee to wind up the affairs of the diocese within the next twelve months, to receive and act upon any proposal made by the federal government, and to take legal action "to determine whether or not parish property is owned by the diocese or whether it is held in trust for the parishes".

Archbishop Crawley told ENI that during debate on the synod resolutions, "there was no blaming, no whining. There were profound emotional expressions of concern for the native members of the church who had survived St George's School. The people showed great courage, great dignity, great compassion and voted with their heads up and flags flying."

At the opening session on October 13, several striking presentations were made. "There was a presentation by the native people of the diocese which was very powerful," Crawley said. "It was a visual demonstration of the need for native people to move from a patriarchal, dependency system under the white society to a position of personal, social and economic independence."

Then representatives of Cariboo's 17 parishes each read and submitted a one-page statement about their parish. "They were very powerful and moving. Without exception they called for healing and reconciliation."

The archbishop told ENI that Bishop Cruikshank "gave a magnificent charge in which he expressed concern about a backlash in the white community against the native community, and how the church must struggle against that".

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Crawley described the government's action in taking legal action against the churches as "foolishness ... it is counter-productive. They are going to sue the church out of existence, and then they will have lost the grassroots contact with a significant portion of the native population of Canada. Right across the country we have over 200 native parishes, over 70 native clergy and four aboriginal bishops.

"All that will be lost if they keep on suing us."

The archbishop added: "The government was caught flat-footed by the intensity and size of this movement—they did a kind of knee-jerk reaction—when you are sued, you fight back—thinking it was strictly a legal problem. They began to realize that it is a political, social, and economic problem. They have to respond on a wider basis than simply fighting court actions."

In the past two weeks, "the government has begun to change its stance," Crawley told ENI. "The overall direction of the matter has been taken out of the hands of the Justice Department and Indian Affairs and put in the hands of Deputy Prime Minister Herb Gray [who is known in political circles for building consensus]. Representatives of the [Anglican, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic and United] churches have [recently] had two meetings with Gray. They are engaged in what might be called 'meaningful conversations'."

Crawley said that members of the Cariboo diocese had been profoundly affected by the issue. "For the people of the diocese it has been a lesson. They have suddenly felt what the native people—not just in the residential schools, but in general in our country—have felt for the last 150 years: controlled by forces outside of themselves."

There were between 4,000 and 4,500 members on the parish rolls, the archbishop said. "According to government statistics, there are 9,000 people within the boundaries of the diocese who claim themselves to be Anglican and of these about 2,000 are aboriginal.

"The diocese of Qu'Appelle on the Saskatchewan prairie is likely to be the next to be challenged by escalating legal costs in relation to the residential schools. Archbishop Crawley said: "It is quite a large diocese—bigger in geographic area and membership than the Cariboo, but it still does not have a lot of resources."

Of the historical difficulties over the residential schools, the archbishop said: "I think that the church got itself in too close collaboration with the government ... in the policy of assimilating native people. In the 1960s it was realized that this was a mistake, and [the church] pulled out of the relationship.

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"There has been talk ever since about the damage that was done to students in the residential schools by the school system. The church tried to respond around 1990 and set up some programs, but because the response from the government was almost non-existent and [that] from the church inadequate, the native people were forced to go to the courts."

A healing and reconciliation fund set up by the church in 1991 has already paid $600,000 to communities with programs helping former students of the residential schools.

Earlier this month, the ACC's national office in Toronto was forced to lay off eight employees and cut $500,000 from its annual budget. Many of the employees who have lost their jobs had worked on social justice, poverty and development issues.

Crawley told ENI that the residential school problem has been the subject of discussions at international levels. "The Episcopal Church General Council [the ruling body of the sister church in the United States] has sent us offers of support, concern and prayers."

Related Elsewhere

Visit the official Anglican Church of Canada site.

The Canadian Government homepage offers information in both French and English.

Don't miss the Anglican Journal article about the church being held responsible for past abuse.

Other media coverage of this issue includes:

Use B.C. property to pay lawsuits, Anglican minister saysThe Toronto Star (Oct. 18, 2000)

Churches offered help to stave off financial ruinNational Post (Oct. 17, 2000)

B.C. churches told to list assetsNational Post (Oct. 16, 2000)

No support by law societies in residential school crisis, lawyer saysNational Post (Oct. 16, 2000)

The Sins of the FathersThe Washington Post (Oct. 13, 2000)

Previous Christianity Today coverage of Canadian church lawsuits includes:

Canada Meeting Gives New Hope for Unity Between Anglicans and Catholics | Churches come closer together, but not close enough to share Eucharist. (May 26, 2000)

Canada's Anglican Church Considers Possibility of Financial Ruin | Court costs, settlements surrounding abuse allegations could mean bankruptcy. (Jan. 31, 2000)

Arctic's Anglican Bishop Looks for Priests to Brave the Cold | Nine vacancies in Anglican Communion's largest diocesan territory, but no prospects. (Jan. 27, 2000)