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The Vatican holds billions in assets. Residential school survivors say the Pope should step up on compensation

As a Canadian delegation prepares for its final meeting with Pope Francis in the Vatican Friday, a growing chorus in Canada is hoping Francis commits to immediately remedying the Roman Catholic Church’s broken compensation promises to residential school survivors.

Canadian bishops announced a renewed fundraising effort last fall —  $30 million over five years — and say work is well underway.

But critics are skeptical. Even if that money can be raised, they say it’s wrong to make the dwindling number of elderly survivors wait that long. They say that if Canadian bishops won’t do it immediately, the Vatican should.

Although all the full specifics of the Vatican’s holdings are unknown, a tabulation of known assets puts them in the tens or possibly hundreds of billions of dollars.

Survivors say the compensation money isn’t for them — it’s to fund addictions and mental health supports, job training, recreation, language preservation and other programs for their descendants suffering through intergenerational trauma.

“It affected my children, my grandchildren. So many are lost,” said survivor and mental health worker Audrey Eyahpaise of the Beardy’s & Okemasis Cree Nation.

The Vatican holds billions in assets. Residential school survivors say the Pope should step up on compensation
Members of the Assembly of First Nations perform in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican, following a meeting with Pope Francis on Thursday. (Alessandra Tarantino/The Associated Press)

The survivors say the Vatican is just as responsible as the local religious orders and dioceses.

“This has been a struggle for many years. They’ve been patient. They keep hearing broken promises,” said University of Saskatchewan Indigenous studies professor and Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation member Bonita Beatty.

“It’s a hierarchy. They report up to the Vatican. So yes, he [Pope Francis] is responsible for the various arms of his government. He can’t just wash his hands of it.”

Billions in assets

Francis’s supporters say he has moved the church toward greater transparency, but a definitive dollar figure of the Roman Catholic Church’s wealth remains unavailable.

CBC News collected publicly available information to obtain a partial list of the church’s assets. They include:

The Vatican

In 2020, the Vatican released a public statement pegging the total assets of its 70 governmental departments at approximately $5.5 billion Cdn, according to the Reuters news service. That includes its worldwide embassies and media holdings. It doesn’t include St. Peter’s Basilica, its museums and art works, or Vatican Bank holdings.

Vatican Bank

Various estimates cited by the Financial Times, CNN and other publications place the Vatican Bank’s holdings at approximately $6 billion to $10 billion Cdn. It holds accounts for more than 1,000 individuals and church-affiliated entities.

Art and architecture

The Vatican has said it considers the work of Michelangelo, Raphael and others in its collection to be priceless, so assigned them a value of one Italian lira — less than one Canadian penny. But an article in New York Magazine stated “even a fraction of the works could likely fetch billions.” This doesn’t include the unknown quantity of Indigenous art and religious items housed at the Vatican.

The Vatican holds billions in assets. Residential school survivors say the Pope should step up on compensation
Saskatoon Catholics raised $28.5 million to build this cathedral in 2012, while critics say a promise to compensate residential school survivors was largely ignored. (Jason Warick/CBC)

Investments

Exact figures are unavailable, but media reports state the Vatican holds significant gold reserves, Italian stocks and other investments. Information disclosed at the recent criminal trial of one of the Vatican’s cardinals revealed a $338-million Cdn purchase of former Harrod’s auto showroom in London’s wealthy Chelsea district, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Land

The Vatican released a statement last year stating it owns more than 5,000 properties worldwide, with the majority inside Italy, according to The Guardian.

The wider Roman Catholic Church is the largest non-governmental landowner in the world, according to the University of Notre Dame’s Fitzgerald Institute for Real Estate. Its holdings total roughly 177 million acres, an area slightly larger than the province of Saskatchewan.

David Murphy, director for the Fitzgerald Institute’s “church properties initiative,” agreed land is the Roman Catholic Church’s most valuable asset, but he said the exact — or even an approximate — dollar value remains a mystery.

“It’s super murky. There’s really no good answer,” Murphy said in an interview.

“I’ve been on the job seven months and I’m still trying to get a handle on it.”

The Vatican holds billions in assets. Residential school survivors say the Pope should step up on compensation
Pope Francis welcomes a delegation of Canada’s First Nations to the Vatican Thursday. (Vatican Media/Catholic Press Photo)

At an average price of $900 Cdn per acre — the cost of the cheapest vacant farmland in Saskatchewan — the total would reach nearly $160 billion. Many churches, cathedrals and Vatican embassies sit on much more valuable urban land in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and other centres.

The church could also have even more land not listed. That’s because religious orders such as Oblates or Jesuits are not required to disclose their holdings to local bishops, he said.

Bishops admit to ‘shortcomings’

Some experts say the Catholic Church still owes Canadian survivors more than $60 million after signing the 2006 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.

The Canadian Council of Catholic Bishops admits to the “shortcomings” in those efforts, but disputes this figure, saying they fulfilled all legal obligations.

Legally, the case was closed after a Saskatchewan judge approved a controversial buyout proposal several years ago and the federal government declined to appeal the decision.

Following the discovery of unmarked graves across Canada last summer, as well as new revelations about the Catholic Church’s failed compensation efforts, the CCCB announced a new five-year, $30-million fundraising campaign.

Jonanthan Lesarge of the CCCB said in a statement that dioceses in Saskatchewan, Vancouver and other centres are already fundraising, and the national campaign has named an Indigenous group of directors and taken other action. CBC News asked last week for a national dollar amount raised so far, but none was available.

Mayo Moran, provost and vice-chancellor of Trinity College at the University of Toronto, spent 15 years chairing the compensation committee for residential school survivors.

She said church officials need to immediately remedy “the litany of promises that have been made and not fulfilled.” That includes compensation.

Moran said it’s extremely urgent, and that the Vatican should step up if Canadian officials won’t act quickly.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that as a moral matter, the church as a whole — that is, the Vatican and the Pope as well — should be putting pressure on and stepping up.”




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