Churches in eastern Nova Scotia are no strangers to hard times. Attendance is dwindling. The population is declining. And they inhabit one of the most economically disadvantaged regions of the country.
This year, however, their plight has reached a point of crisis – and parishioners have had enough.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Antigonish is selling 250 properties and liquidating its assets to pay a $15-million settlement for sexual abuse involving clergy.
Churchgoers were dealt another blow this week with the sentencing of Rev. Raymond Lahey – the bishop who brokered the multimillion-dollar deal.
Father Lahey, who was charged with possession of child pornography a month after negotiating the sex-abuse settlement, was sentenced to 15 months in custody and released on probation after getting double credit for eight months already served.
"It was very hard, and then to come through all these years and our parishes now have had to pay for the claims. There isn't resentment toward paying [the victims] it's just that it shouldn't be put upon the people," said Phyllis MacDonald, a member of St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church in Port Hood.
"Now we have to raise money to keep above ground, to keep our parishes going, to pay for heat in the church."
Ms. MacDonald said the settlement, which has forced cash-strapped parishes to give nearly all their reserves to the diocese, should be paid by the top level of the church hierarchy: the Vatican.
It's a thought shared by Marie Louise Samson, who was once a Catholic nun and an active member of her parish in Arichat, on Isle Madame, south of Cape Breton. The sex-abuse scandal prompted her to stop donating to the church, and later, attending altogether.
Ms. Samson said parishes' modest reserves and the sale of their properties – some of them willed to churches by parishioners – are the wrong sources of money.
"They came like thieves in the night to take our money and they took it away without even blinking an eye," Ms. Samson said. "It's a shame. It's our parents that worked to place [the churches]there and our grandparents, and they don't care. They just have to sell them."
But the church said there is no alternative source.
"We have no indication that the Vatican sees or is able to do something," said Rev. Paul Abbass, a spokesman for the Diocese of Antigonish based in New Glasgow, on the eastern mainland.
"We just had to keep saying to people, 'We're not just taking your money. It's not a money grab. It really is to right a wrong.'"
Charles MacDonald, a theology scholar from Sydney, N.S., who studied for his doctorate under Joseph Ratzinger, who is now the Pope, said the fact that Father Lahey brokered the settlement, more than anything else, has been the cause of unease among parishioners.
"How much of it is a reaction to the settlement and how much of it is a reaction to the sense of betrayal associated with the former bishop?" he said.
Daniel Doucet, a retired priest who lives in Sydney, questions whether church leaders are the right people to be handling finances.
"It's not so much about where the money's coming from, but it's about the clericalism of the church," Mr. Doucet said. He added that laypeople with business expertise should be hired to handle the enormous task of brokering real-estate deals to pay off the settlement.
"It's not clear to me that [the bishop and top priests are]following the best business practices and that they're competent in that area," he said.
Father Abbass said the five-member committee of priests responsible for selling church property has been overwhelmed by the task. He said he did not have a full list of all the properties that would be sold and that an account of how much each parish was required to contribute to the settlement would be released only at the end of the process. Each parish, he said, was required to turn over all its reserves (ranging from $1,000 for some to hundreds of thousands for others) save for $10,000 for operational costs and any extra funds needed to cover outstanding bills.
The first $4.6-million instalment of the settlement was paid last May and was funded by liquid assets individual parishes and the diocese held. Another $4-million paid in November came from sales of land and non-core church properties, such as unused church halls and rectories. Parish halls were to be sold as well, but resistance from parishioners prompted the church to take them off the block, Father Abbass said.
The balance of the settlement will be paid in November, also from anticipated sales of church property. So far, all properties have been sold at fair market value, he said.
Father Abbass said he did not know the cost of legal fees to the diocese when the settlement was brokered.
"When this whole process is completed, we will be giving to our people a breakdown of every single cost," he said.
In the meantime, some communities have found inventive ways to cover their parishes' everyday expenses. In Pictou, on the eastern mainland, a few members of Stella Maris Parish's congregation solicit parishioners outside of the church for donations for specific projects: new cemetery gates, patching up the roof, balcony repairs. Instead of sending funds directly to the parish, donors write a cheque to "Friends of Stella Maris," cash is deposited in the group's bank account and donors receive a tax receipt. When they're ready to pay for services, funds are withdrawn from that account. The diocese can't touch the money.
In November, the group raised $36,000 to pay outstanding bills, insurance and salaries.
"We decided we would give the parish a boost this year. We started off the year debt-free," explained Eric LeBlanc, one of the group's co-founders.
He's not vocal about his views on the settlement – he's a parishioner who, despite a short history of major tests of faith, still believes that local priests will sort it out.
"I know what should be done and what will be done are two different things, but I don't worry about it."