Diocese to Sell Churches to Pay for Abuse Claims

A Roman Catholic diocese in eastern Canada (search) plans to sell all its churches and missions to raise the money to pay the victims of sexual assault by a priest who was convicted more than a decade ago, a bishop said Monday.

The Catholic Diocese of St. George's (search) will sell about 150 properties to raise $10.5 million as part of a settlement for the victims of the Rev. Kevin Bennett, who was convicted in 1990 of hundreds of sexual assaults over three decades as a priest in the province of Newfoundland.

"All of the churches, all of the parish houses, all the missions," will be sold, Bishop Douglas Crosby (search) said. Forty properties, apparently cemeteries, weren't part of the deal.

The organization was appealing to its 32,000 parishioners for donations to buy back core properties when they go on sale in the coming months. "What we're hoping is we can save, or repurchase, one-third of them," Crosby said.

Bennett admitted his guilt and was sentenced to four years in prison in the early 1990s. Now retired and in his 70s, he continues to draw a church pension while living on a family property.

The 39 victims launched a civil suit in 1991, claiming damages from Bennett, some of his church superiors, the western Newfoundland diocese of St. George's and the church as a whole.

The case was appealed all the way to Canada's Supreme Court, which upheld the right of victims to sue their diocese.

Earlier this year, St. George's became the first Catholic diocese in Canada to seek bankruptcy protection as a result of $40 million in sexual abuse claims. It has since negotiated a $10.5 million settlement proposal.

Greg Stack, the lawyer for 37 of the 39 boys abused by Bennett, said they will accept the settlement offer in a vote on May 25. Victims could receive funds by late June or early July.

"The amount of the settlement is almost secondary," Stack said. "It's been 16 years since this court action was started. I mean, they're just happy that it's over."

Other church organizations have been forced into bankruptcy by abuse claims, including the Christian Brothers of Canada and the Anglican diocese of Cariboo, in British Columbia.

The St. George's diocese will have to put its savings and investments toward the settlement along with the properties. It was unclear whether insurers will cover some of the costs.

Unlike many other religious denominations, which are incorporated nationally, the Catholic Church in Canada is legally incorporated at the diocese level and has traditionally enjoyed immunity from lawsuits.

The federal government intervened in the Bennett case to argue the church should be liable, while the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops argued its immunity should be maintained.