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Politics Catholic church reluctant to release residential schools records

Study time at an Indian Residential School in Fort Resolution, Northwest Territories, date unknown.

Library and Archives Canada

The Roman Catholic Church is balking at the release of Indian residential schools documents that name individual church members, insisting its concern is purely about respecting Canada's privacy laws and not an attempt to cover up new allegations of abuse.

But the research director for Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission says the denominations involved in residential schools are being unco-operative, and suggests the Catholic church in particular fears more abuse stories will come out against living members.

The Conservative government and the churches that helped run Canada's Indian residential schools are sitting on mountains of archived material, but not a single page has yet been turned over to the commission.

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For years, the churches, Ottawa and representatives of former students have negotiated behind the scenes over how to release the documents while respecting Canada's privacy laws. All the churches say they are being co-operative.

There now appears to be broad agreement that names of individual students will be released only with their permission, but it remains undecided whether the names of church members - whether dead or alive - will be revealed.

Pierre Baribeau, the lawyer who speaks on behalf of 54 Catholic entities involved in the agreement, said Catholics are the ones waiting on the commission to produce a clear policy for how documents can be released while respecting federal and provincial privacy laws.

"The TRC does not have a free fishing expedition. We are bound by the law," he said. "The law does not allow us to deliver documents which are pertaining to individuals who are named in some documents. We're trying to find a way to protect ourselves because the law does not allow us [to disclose] unless we have the consent of the individual… Whether they are or are not related to allegations is not the subject matter [of the discussions]"

Mr. Baribeau said regardless of how this debate ends, the commission will still receive 99 per cent of the documents it seeks from Catholic archives.

The commission's research director, Trent University professor and historian John Milloy, described the situation far more bluntly in comments published recently in a Trent campus newspaper.

"The churches are not being co-operative at all," he is quoted as telling the Arthur newspaper. "The Catholics are especially wary. They might say, 'If we give you the documents, John, and they're the diary of priest so-and-so and this opens him up to liability - because he was buggering boys in the basement and that sort of thing - and he sues us [the church] we're in all sorts of trouble.' "

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Reached by The Globe, Prof. Milloy confirmed making the published comments but said the example of the priest's diaries was hypothetical. He said his main frustration is that the Catholic Church is made up of many different entities that have their own unique legal concerns. With funding from Ottawa, the Roman Catholic Church ran more than 70 per cent of the Indian residential schools, which operated from the late 1800s to the 1970s.

The United Church's representative in these closed-door meetings, Rev. James Scott, said his church is not insisting on consent from its church members, only consent from former students named in the documents. He said he has come across concern among Catholics that retirees living in church residences will be embarrassed.

"There are former staff who live in community - brothers, sisters, priests and so on - and I know that some of the concern in the Catholic Church has been about the reputations and the kind of history related to people who are still living in community," Mr. Scott said.

The churches' promise to publicly disclose their private archives to the commission was considered a key victory by former students at the time of the 2007 multibillion-dollar out-of-court settlement between former students, the federal government and the churches that helped run the schools.

The suggestion that Catholic leaders are opposing the full release of documents comes as the church is in full damage control over widespread international cases of child abuse.

Representatives of the Presbyterian and Anglican churches indicated that the Protestant faiths do not share the same privacy concerns as the Catholics and blame any delay on technical issues such as whether to disclose scans or microfiche.

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The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has a five-year mandate and is planning its first of seven national events for this June in Winnipeg. The next meeting of the parties over documents will take place in Winnipeg next week.

Henriette Thompson, the Anglican representative in these closed-door meetings, insisted the negotiations over documents are approaching a conclusion.

"There are some differences," she said. "I'd say there's a high degree of consensus among the Protestant churches."

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Editor's note An earlier version of this article included an incorrect date for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's first event. This version has been corrected.

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