Remembering Mount Cashel Orphanage

The recent spate of news of abuse and cover-ups, primarily in the United States Church, brought the name of Mount Cashel Orphanage to the ears of many Canadians, primarily those from St. John’s, Newfoundland (where I grew up). The details of that scandal seemed like an anomaly at the time. It was easy to see that we must have been to blame, that we brought this on ourselves.

Over time, we came to see that it was the tip of a global iceberg, an iceberg that is still growing, rather than melting. Thanks in part to that scandal, Canada’s Catholic bishops developed protocols long before their US counterparts.

Mount Cashel orphanage was started in the late nineteenth century and was operated by the Christian Brothers starting not long after Newfoundland joined Canada in 1949. It was named for the Rock of Cashel in County Tipperary, Ireland.

The Christian Brothers announced the closure of the orphanage in late 1989, about forty years after they took over the operation. That coincided with the disclosure of Canada’s largest sexual abuse scandal, one that identified systemic abuse and cover up. Extensive investigations revealed a pattern of sexual and physical abuse of several hundred residents of the orphanage.

There were multiple criminal investigations, a provincial government-commissioned Royal Commission of Inquiry, and an inquiry commissioned by the Archdiocese of St. John’s. It culminated in criminal convictions and millions of dollars of financial settlements.

The property was seized and the site razed and sold for real estate development in the 1990s as part of a court settlement ordering financial compensation to the victims. Other properties owned by the Christian Brothers elsewhere in Canada were seized and liquidated. The reporting on the scandal was an almost-daily item in the local St. John’s media for several years.

The Church was smeared on an almost-daily basis. The physical destruction of the building was likely greeted by sentiments not unlike the infamous Residential Schools for Aboriginal youth. All that remains of the old orphanage is the set of posts of the original front gate. The site now houses a supermarket. The posts are at the entrance to the parking lot. No plaque has been erected on the site.

There had been a criminal investigation of physical and sexual abuse as early as 1975. Charges were laid and perpetrators were discretely moved off the Island, but the matter was somehow or other was curtailed on instruction from the Department of Justice.

The matter re-surfaced in 1982 and a criminal investigation found physical and sexual allegations. However, several years later, in 1989, the matter re-surfaced and this time, it did not quietly go away. The issue surfaced on a local radio station and caught the attention of the Deputy Attorney-General. As a result, the Mount Cashel files were opened again and the police were instructed to complete the 1975 investigation and determine why charges were never laid.

That criminal investigation took place from 1989 to 1996. Investigations eventually revealed that in 1975, there was a cover up involving the provincial government, the Archdiocese, and the police.

I find it ironic that the beginning and early years of my Jesuit vocation were lived with the Mount Cashel scandal as a backdrop. I was discerning my Jesuit vocation almost literally in the backyard of that infamous orphanage. I was ordained in 1988 and had my Mass of Thanksgiving less that a kilometer from the orphanage.

I know that the whole matter has adversely affected the faith of many of my family and friends, in most cases for a lifetime. The fallout from the scandal is still going on – both the financial and legal implications, but also the overwhelmingly negative impact it had on Church involvement in a place that was steeped in Irish Catholicism.

Those who work with the Church in St. John’s have to deal on a regular basis with the impact of this part of the Church on their present ministry, trying to resurrect something from the ashes. They deserve our thanks. I hope that they can offer helps for those who are reeling elsewhere. Healing takes a long time and changes people forever.

Philip Shano, SJ has many years of rich and varied experience working with Ignatian spirituality: teaching, writing and using it in his ministry. He resides in the Jesuit community in Pickering, Ontario.

  • John Montague
    Posted at 08:01h, 04 October Reply

    Since you are from Newfoundland, I have always wondered what your thoughts were about Mt. Cashel. Thankyou for sharing. I have a close friend who was a superior in the Christian brothers and remains in religious life. So I’ve heard his perspective.

    Irish Catholicism has quite a mixed review. The failure to deal with sexuality is a fundamental cause of rigidity, secrecy, and hypocrisy. May the suffering that the victims of abuse bore, bear fruit in educating people in ministry, and parents to not accept everything without question that church authorities proclaim.

  • Philip Shano
    Posted at 17:24h, 04 October Reply

    Thanks very much for your comments John, especially regarding Irish Catholicism. Sad stories!

  • Ann Appleton
    Posted at 10:04h, 04 June Reply

    Can you tell me:

    Under what circumstance(s) in the late 1940s and the 1950’s would a child have been placed in Mt. Cashel by parent or a court, if they had a living mother?

    Under what circumstance(s) could that same mother regain the custody of her child?

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