Christian Abuse settlement brings dark memories in Canada

Michael Harris, the journalist and author who in 1989 helped break the story of sexual abuse at the Mount Cashel orphanage in St. John's, says it's incredible to see cases still coming to light decades later.

CBC

“A journalist who helped break the Mount Cashel sexual abuse story back in 1989 says this week’s news of another government settlement — for a former resident of the St. John’s orphanage who was sexually abused outside of the facility by a social worker assigned to protect him — shows that the process of justice continues to march on.

The man will receive a $750,000 settlement from the Newfoundland and Labrador government after a civil suit was launched claiming government was liable for the abuse.

‘The fountainhead of a lot of good things came from the courage that the Newfoundland system exhibited back then.’– Michael Harris

Nearly 30 years after Michael Harris first published a Mount Cashel story in the Sunday Express newspaper, he says it’s difficult to hear these cases still being dealt with — even if it does mean victims are still getting the justice they deserve.

“It breaks everybody’s heart, again,” he told the St. John’s Morning Show.

“But the thing that makes me euphoric, is that the system has not gotten battle-fatigued. That, in fact, it still continues to try and give retroactive justice to these victims of people who should never have been put in the care of any children.”

Mount Cashel Orphanage

The Mount Cashel orphanage, operated by the Christian Brothers, closed in 1990. (CBC)

The long arc of justice

It’s not surprising to Harris that cases like this are still being dealt with, as the nature of the Hughes Commission — which investigated the Mount Cashel abuse — was such that only those victims who were willing to go public would be entitled to any compensation.

“A lot of kids who did not come forward for completely valid reasons of their own have come to me and said, ‘Is there any way I can get something now? Because the person who did it to me was never questioned at the Hughes Commission, they were totally different people,'” Harris said.

“That’s always bothered me.”

Legacy of Mount Cashel

​Harris, who also wrote the 1991 book Unholy Orders: Tragedy at Mount Cashel, says it’s still remarkable to him that Newfoundland was the first place in the world to face a major Christian abuse scandal head on — at a time when the Catholic church had such immense power over the province’s institutions and culture.

Children at Mount Cashel Orphanage in St. John's

Children at Mount Cashel, seen in archival pictures. (CBC)

Harris credits the province’s going through with an inquiry as the spark that launched other such scandals coming to light in Boston and elsewhere and, most recently, with Canada’s residential schools.

“Newfoundlanders stood up and faced the music, and made the church face the music and made the justice department face the music,” Harris said.

“People found the courage to do it largely because of the Newfoundland example. If you look back, the fountainhead of a lot of good things came from the courage that the Newfoundland system exhibited back then.”

In his own professional life, Harris said he is still in constant battle with those who seek to diminish what happened at Mount Cashel and label those who claimed abuse as professional victims or say they need to just move on.

‘There are some things you can never get over.’– Michael Harris

Harris said those cynics need to realize some have been subjected to horrors that the average person can’t even fathom.

He points to one example where a Mount Cashel victim, now in his 50s, still can’t sleep in an actual bed because of the horrors that happened to him during his time at the orphanage happened in a bed. That man now sleeps in what Harris calls a “nest” in a closet.

hi-cp-mount-cashel-1989file-5013869

The Mount Cashel building was demolished in 1992 and a supermarket complex and housing developments have replaced it.

“I’m afraid there are some things you can never get over,” Harris said.

With that in mind, and in today’s current media climate, Harris hopes the lesson of Mount Cashel is one that shows the powerful responsibility that journalism plays is getting people talking about injustices that might seem too uncomfortable to face at first.

​”We should never give up taking the torch to the dark corners,” he said. “No matter where it is and who is involved.””

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