The Supreme Court of Canada reserved its decision in a case that has the Canadian government and victims' lawyers arguing that the Catholic Church, as a whole, should be found suable in order to settle sexual-abuse and residential-school claims.
Two years ago, the Episcopal Corporation of St. George’s, Nfld., asked the Supreme Court to hear its appeal, after a Newfoundland court had found the diocese responsible for sexual abuses committed by Fr. Kevin Bennett. The priest, now 70, was sentenced to four years in the early1990s on more than 30 counts.
But victims seeking compensation have been unable to find sufficient funds to satisfy judgments in their favor and are now seeking the legal right to sue the Church as a whole.
The Supreme Court heard arguments from both sides Jan. 14.
William Sammon, lawyer for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, argued that the Catholic Church is not a suable entity.
While the government wants the Catholic Church to be suable, "it has never entered into any kind of agreement with the Church — the Holy See, that is — for the legal personality of the Church," Sammon told reporters, according to Canadian Catholic News.
The Holy See is a sovereign state that can enter into treaties with other countries, called concordats, for the purpose of recognizing the legal personality of the Church, Sammon told CCN.
However, the Canadian government never requested a concordat. The Church has since had 150 years of legal immunity in Canada.
"Now, because it’s not convenient for the federal government, they want simply to ignore all of that and treat the Church as one huge entity, mainly because of the Indian residential schools, because they want indemnity from the churches for the operation of their schools," CCN quoted Sammon as saying.
However, the Church incorporated its dioceses and other organizations as separate legal entities in order to conduct its temporal affairs.
Two court decisions in recent years found the Catholic Church not to be a suable entity, but the Supreme Court may rule differently.