For most people, it’s just another shopping plaza. They come and go from the liquor outlet, hair salon, medical centre and grocery store, loading their purchases into cars in a parking lot that fronts a busy street.
But John Doe No. 26 will never forget what used to be here.
The 80-year-old grandfather can still vividly see the notorious Mount Cashel orphanage that stood at this St. John’s site until it was demolished in 1992. He was a resident there for seven years, until he was 15 years old, and suffered unspeakable violence and abuse at the hands of men who were supposed to care for him.
“I get this feeling, more than shivers. It’s like a flashback. I can see everything, I can hear the children,” he said. “It’s a foreboding feeling. Every time I go, I know it’s going to happen. It’s a rescreening of events.”
The Supreme Court of Canada is expected to announce Thursday whether it will hear an appeal by the Roman Catholic Church over a recent ruling on its financial liability for that abuse – a closely watched decision that, if upheld, could set off a new wave of litigation against the church. The Archdiocese of St. John’s has long claimed no ownership over the orphanage, and no affiliation with the U.S.-based Christian Brothers organization that ran the place.
Mr. Doe, whose real name is protected by court order because he was a child at the time of his abuse, is among the many victims of the Christian Brothers. There are so many “John Does” like him from Mount Cashel the court assigned them all numbers as a way to tell them apart.
And while the physical, psychological and sexual abuse that happened at the orphanage has been well documented in the criminal and civil courts, the story of Mount Cashel is still unresolved in the eyes of many Newfoundlanders.
Mr. Doe, one of four plaintiffs who were residents at the orphanage in the 1950s, says the church owes it to the people of his province to acknowledge its close relationship with the orphanage that operated from 1898 until 1990. It closed after a local independent weekly newspaper began publishing allegations of abuse.
“It’s a blight on Newfoundland,” Mr. Doe said. “It would be good if the church wiped it all clean by meeting their responsibility to tell the truth.”
Newfoundland and Labrador’s highest court ruled in July, 2020, that the archdiocese was financially liable for sexual abuse at the Mount Cashel orphanage while Mr. Doe was a resident, a decision that would have cost the church about $2-million. The diocese appealed to Canada’s top court.
While the Christian Brothers were not employees of the archdiocese, the Newfoundland and Labrador Court of Appeal ruled they were working on behalf of the social and religious mandate of the archdiocese. That close relationship, and by providing the Christian Brothers with the environment and power to abuse children virtually without oversight, makes the church liable for damages owed by the now-defunct organization, the court said.
Archbishop Peter Hundt declined to comment for this story. In a previous statement, the archdiocese said the ruling would have “profound implications” for its future operations and other Catholic corporations, charities and organizations. The legal fight has prompted some to withhold donations to the Archdiocese of St. John’s.
“While the archdiocese of St. John’s was never responsible for the operations of the orphanage or the school at Mount Cashel, we have immense sympathy for those who suffered in the past and continue to suffer,” the church’s statement read.
Complaints about abuse at the orphanage swirled around Mount Cashel for decades. A Royal Newfoundland Constabulary officer interviewed 24 boys in 1975 about allegations of physical and sexual abuse at the orphanage, and persuaded two Christian Brothers to confess to molestation – but his superiors ordered him to scrub any reference to sexual assault in his report. The provincial government ultimately made a deal with the orphanage to send the two sexual abusers to a location out of province, in return for no criminal charges.
The Christian Brothers formally apologized to victims like Mr. Doe in 1992. The organization also paid $16-million in compensation, before declaring bankruptcy, while the province paid $11-million. Dozens of lawsuits were brought against the now-defunct organization, and many victims were never compensated in full.
Mr. Doe, meanwhile, has little sympathy for the church, which he says turned a blind eye to what was happening at Mount Cashel. He says he suffered nearly constant abuse after he and three of his brothers were sent to the orphanage in 1948, after the death of their mother. A fourth brother was sent to Mount Cashel a year later.
He was eight years old when he arrived at Mount Cashel from Bell Island, the small mining community in Conception Bay where he was born. Some of the men who ran the orphanage were sadists, he said. Boys were whipped and slapped for vomiting and subjected to beatings that seemed unprovoked, he said. Mr. Doe says he was strapped with leather, hit with sticks and, at the age of 10, knocked unconscious by a blow to the head.
Others were pedophiles who found a place where they could have complete control over children. After bedtime, Mr. Doe used to watch them creep into the boys’ dormitory, tracking their movements by the shadows against the wall.
“At night they were like vultures,” he said. “It was like a little house of horrors.”
By the age of 15, he was growing bigger and began to fight back. He was kicked out of the orphanage because he stepped in to defend another boy who was being beaten by one of the Christian Brothers.
“He had my friend up by the throat and was pounding him, because he was late. So I picked up a chair and I crashed it on his head,” he said.
A police investigation by the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary that reopened in 1989 led to the arrest of 14 staff and 88 charges of physical and sexual abuse. Four men were later charged with covering up abuse in the 1970s, and more charges were laid against six staff in 1996 related to older cases of abuse dating back to the 1950s and 1960s. Nine Christian Brothers were ultimately convicted.
After he left the orphanage, Mr. Doe tried to bury his memories of Mount Cashel and start a new life. He joined the navy, became an accomplished athlete, coach and teacher, was married and had children. But he also struggled with alcohol, an addiction that he says he conquered only with the help of his wife.
It wasn’t until the news broke of a judicial inquiry into abuse at the orphanage in 1989 that Mr. Doe finally broke down and was forced to confront his childhood trauma. He says his wife came home to find him crying in the basement. He finally told her about his time at Mount Cashel.
“I was a basket case,” he said. “It was like I was rolling a rock up a mountain all those years and I couldn’t hold it any more. It just exploded … I felt dirty, used, stained. I finally realized what had been eating at me for so long, affecting my self-worth.”
Geoff Budden, a St. John’s lawyer who has represented many Mount Cashel victims, said Mr. Doe’s story is common. Some of the former residents are elderly now, and still dealing with the damage done to them at the orphanage.
“We hear terrible things sometimes. Some of it is quite haunting, when you have grown men crying and telling you about the things that happened to them as children,” Mr. Budden said.
“It’s not something you just leave behind, no matter how much you might want to.”
Mr. Doe wants to finally close the door on Mount Cashel. There are still streets in St. John’s named after the orphanage, and some of the men who used to work there. The church needs to acknowledge that it ignored evidence of abuse for decades, and did little to help victims who came forward, he said.
“They need to accept responsibility,” he said. “They need to say, ‘We’re sorry. We left you out in the cold. We didn’t act on this. We didn’t protect you.’ ”
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