A Nova Scotia legislature committee has shelved a private members bill that would reorganize the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Halifax-Yarmouth amid concerns from a lawyer representing sexual abuse victims.
Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil said the local bills committee acted properly when it voted Tuesday to hold the bill after a presentation by John McKiggan, who represents hundreds of sexual assault victims who were abused by priests.
The Halifax lawyer told the committee he believes the bill would allow the archdiocese to divest itself of assets and place them into sub-corporations held by individual parishes.
McKiggan suggests the intent for the proposed change to century-old legislation was to “make it more difficult for survivors of priest sexual abuse to be able to receive just and fair compensation for their injuries.”
“In the future, if a victim of sexual abuse by a priest obtains a judgment against the archdiocese, the archdiocese may very well say that it has no assets available to pay the judgment,” McKiggan told the committee.
He said the archdiocese could argue that any judgment wouldn’t be enforceable against individual parishes because they would be separate legal corporations.
A lawyer for the archdiocese told the committee that wasn’t the bill’s intent.
McNeil later said that an assumption had been made about the bill and the government would re-examine it to ensure there are no unintended consequences contained in it.
“I think it’s important that we take a pause and look at the bill,” McNeil said.
The premier was asked whether he was concerned by McKiggan’s allegations.
“It was never the intent and certainly would not be a bill that would be brought forward by the government,” he said.
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The bill was sponsored by Immigration Minister Lena Metlege Diab, who said she was unaware of any concerns similar to those voiced by McKiggan.
“I had no idea,” said Metlege Diab, who added she was surprised by what she heard during the committee hearing.
In 2012, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Antigonish in Nova Scotia agreed to a $16-million compensation settlement for 125 confirmed and alleged victims of sexual abuse.
The diocese put about 150 properties up for sale. More than 100 parishes were drained of their savings.
Raymond Lahey, the former bishop of the diocese, had helped broker the settlement in August 2009. That came weeks before he was charged with importing child pornography into Canada. He was later convicted, sentenced to time served, and defrocked by the Holy See in Rome.
The settlement provided $13 million to alleged and confirmed victims of sexual abuse at the hands of priests who worked for the diocese between 1950 and September 2009. The rest covered legal and administrative fees.