Copied from The Montreal Gazette

Thursday June 1, 2000

Church shifts stance on orphans

The Gazette

Proposal for compassion fund to be studied, but apology for victims' plight appears unlikely

The Roman Catholic Church has shifted its position on the file of the Duplessis orphans and is actively studying ways to do more to help the orphans and compensate them without admitting legal liability.

"We are continuing to examine the dossier," said Mgr. Robert Beaupre, spokesman for the archdiocese. "We are not totally satisfied with the different positions taken, in the measure where it is a tension between a will to express the church's values of compassion, of welcome, of mercy and at the same time to protect our employees, our responsibility as an employer, a manager of public funds, etc."

Beaupre said an internal church committee, which includes representatives of the Quebec Assembly of Bishops and four religious orders, is particularly interested by two proposals that have been put forward - that of the Law Commission of Canada, which recommended a non-legal, compassionate approach to resolving the question, and a similar proposal to create a compassion fund.

"It is an approach that we cannot ignore because it is serious and well documented."

Beaupre said no decisions have been reached and might not be until at least this fall.

However, apologizing for what happened to the orphans appears unlikely, because the church is concerned an apology "comports too much legal connotation," he added.

Beaupre's revelation is in marked contrast with the church's public position to date and a precursor to a potential breakthrough.

In September 1999, the Quebec Assembly of Bishops categorically refused to apologize for what happened to the orphans, saying it would betray the work of the nuns who cared for children abandoned by society. It also refused all compensation to the victims, saying it had already provided services to many of the orphans to get them back on their feet.

The plight of the Duplessis orphans has attracted international attention in recent months, most recently a feature published yesterday in France's Nouvel Observateur.

Between 1930 and 1960, the orphans, whose only sin was generally to have been born out of wedlock or to parents too poor to support them, were wrongly labeled as mentally ill or mentally retarded and interned in psychiatric institutions where many were physically or sexually abused. At the time, subsidies for psychiatric institutions were triple those for orphanages.

Estimates of the number of orphans varies widely. Quebec's ombudsman put the number at 3,000, while an orphans-support committee headed by former Parti Quebecois minister Denis Lazure has focused on 1,500 cases.

In 1997, Quebec's ombudsman recommended a series of measures to correct the wrong done to the orphans, including individual compensation of $30,000. While Premier Lucien Bouchard offered an apology last year on behalf of the provincial government, he offered a compensation package of only $3 million .

In recent weeks, however, cracks have begun to appear in the wall erected by the government and by the Catholic Church.

In March, the Jesuit magazine Relations published a letter written by six nuns and co-signed by 64 Catholics, questioning whether the church, state and college of physicians were justified in "washing their hands" of the file on the backs of religious communities and of the victims.

Tuesday, PQ MNA Roger Paquin tabled a 21,000-name petition in the National Assembly calling on the government to compensate the orphans.

Paquin and a number of other backbench PQ MNAs are backing a proposal for the government to create a "compassion fund," and set an example by making the first contribution. Other groups involved, such as the Catholic Church and the College of Physicians, could also contribute, as could philanthropists and members of the public.

While Beaupre said the church is seriously considering the proposal for a compassion fund, he said it does not accept the idea of individual compensation. Nor is the church prepared to accept the orphans' contention that they were victims of a system designed to increase the revenues of the church.

"They want us to recognize that the system functioned falsely for a financial abuse, and we don't accept that."

Meanwhile, the orphans garnered the support yesterday of B'Nai Brith Canada's League for Human Rights, which called on the Quebec government to re-open the file.

"Without a doubt, the Duplessis orphans were, and still are, victims of despicable acts and abuses," wrote Steven Slimovitch.

"They still suffer today from these ghosts of the past."