DUPLESSIS' ORPHANS

Copied from the Montreal Gazette

September 17, 1999


The least it could do

The Gazette

The Roman Catholic Church in Quebec is categorical. There will be no apology to the thousands of Quebecers who say they were victimized as children in Catholic institutions during the 1940s and 1950s. Nor will there be financial compensation. It's too bad the orphans were so unfortunate in life, but that was the fault of their families. Tough luck. With that, this week, the Quebec bishops slammed the door shut.

It is hard not to think ill of the Quebec Catholic Church in this affair. Thousands of small children from poverty-stricken families were handed - in desperation and sometimes in shame - to the church in the years before the Quiet Revolution of 1960.

That was a time, it must be remembered, when the church was battling furiously to keep control over social and medical services in the province. If there was nowhere else for these children to go, as the church now protests, that was not accidental.

It was the story of Alice Quinton, 61, who spent 16 years as a child interned in insane asylums despite being demonstrably sane, that first brought to public attention in Quebec the plight of the now middle-aged ''Duplessis orphans.'' She still has nightmares and suffers back pain from the beatings inflicted on her as a child. She wants the church to acknowledge that she never was insane.

It is not a great deal to ask, under the circumstances. Instead, this week, the Assembly of Archbishops spoke out against the orphans, saying it was their own families' fault they ended up in institutions. The archbishops also refused to accept any blame for the fact that so many thousands of them were falsely diagnosed as mentally ill or handicapped so that the province could claim a higher sum for their care from the federal government.

Absurdly, the archbishops have now suggested the tragedy was Ottawa's fault, as though we were talking about equalization payments or public-works funding, not the practice of administering electroshock treatments to normal children.

Asked if the church knew that false diagnoses were made of the children, Archbishop Pierre Morissette said, "I wasn't there, I can't answer that." It is an unsatisfactory response. If the Roman Catholic Church doesn't know about the wrong diagnoses, it is because it has chosen the path of wilful ignorance.

Expressing sorrow for a misfortune in which it played a role is the least the church could do. In Newfoundland, faced with allegations of abuse by Catholic brothers in the Mount Cashel orphanage, the Roman Catholic Church agreed in 1997 to apologize and provide compensation. It is an example the church in Quebec would do well to follow.

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