Skip to main content

Penny Collenette, a former director of appointments in the Prime Minister's Office under Jean Chrétien, is an adjunct professor in the University of Ottawa's faculty of law.


In recent days, Pope Francis made a stunning gesture by miraculously scooping up three Syrian refugee families of the Muslim faith from the Greek island of Lesbos, where they were awaiting immigration news, and jetting them off to the welcome environs of Rome, where they were to be given sanctuary by various Catholic entities.

Most of the world applauded this heartwarming story of care, compassion and solidarity with the beleaguered refugees.

Almost reaching beyond Catholicism and into the world of global diplomacy, this Pope is clearly more than a figurehead or a photo opportunity. He has demonstrated time and again, both his humility and his intellectual prowess. He wishes to promote a global "moral economy," in which the gap between the rich and the poor would be diminished. It might appear that he is close to redefining moral direction, in a world which is crying out for a moral compass.

Why then is his management style, his "tone from the top," taking so long to reach into the inner sanctum of the corporation that is the Roman Catholic Church, the largest Christian church in the world, with more than 1.25 billion members? Why is it that more than two years after Pope Francis was installed – time enough to understand his thinking – a lawyer, representing the 50 Catholic entities who were supposed to pay into a landmark settlement to Canadian victims of Catholic residential school abuse, was allowed to renege on the settlement?

Details are still forthcoming, but how did two lawyers miscommunicate such a monumentally important negotiation? Were the original discussions carried out in good faith? Was the promise by the Church to "try" to solicit donations and contributions set up to fail? If so, why was it allowed to continue? The answers to these questions must be disclosed in order for there to be any type of public understanding.

But one fact is crystal clear: There is nothing moral or ethical about breaking a promise to vulnerable and innocent people who have already suffered a terrible injustice. There is no compassion in allowing some kind of legal loophole to be an ethical escape clause.

Traditionally, ethical misbehaviour was publicly confined to the political and sometimes the corporate world. But in recent years, churches, like many other institutions, have had the harsh glare of sunlight invading their own dark sanctuaries.

At a time when Canada is feeling both pain and shame for its indigenous people, this further blow can only result in a dangerous lack of trust, not only in the church, but in our justice system for not upholding what appeared to be a settlement, and in our government for allowing a legal misunderstanding to turn into a legal decision, which invalidated the arrangements. A lack of trust in turn leads to a breakdown in relationships and communications – a breakdown we can ill afford at such a sensitive moment in our country's attempt to recalibrate our relationship with our indigenous brothers and sisters.

The great Christian Golden Rule says that we should all do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Pope Francis, please tell your Church hierarchy that we need them to remember that rule and to live up to it. You are doing your part. Ask your followers to do the same.