VANCOUVER, British Columbia, Sept. 11 (RNS)--The Anglican diocese of Cariboo, British Columbia, will vote next month on a plan that would make it the first diocese in Canadian history to declare bankruptcy.

Faced with daunting court costs from native residential-school lawsuits, priests and lay leaders in the sprawling British Columbia interior diocese will gather October 13-15 to decide whether to close the diocese and leave their bishop, Jim Cruickshank, without a job.

"The members of the diocese don't want to vote for winding up operations, but they have no option. The diocese is no longer able to pay its legal costs," said Kamloops-based Archbishop David Crawley, who oversees all of British Columbia's Anglican dioceses.

The Cariboo diocese has already paid an out-of-court settlement to one of eight native men abused in the 1970s by a dormitory supervisor at Anglican-run St. George's residential school in Lytton.

But Crawley said it is the cost of handling seven other lawsuits that has become untenable for the Cariboo diocese, which is one of several across Canada facing possible bankruptcy. Natives have filed more than 6,000 lawsuits alleging abuse at more than 100 now-defunct, church-run, federally funded residential schools across the country.

"This vote is going to be emotional and stressful for people," Crawley said. "They're going to be dealing with church buildings on which they've spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, places where their parents were married and they were married. But they're moving toward winding up the diocese in order to get some sense of controlling their own destiny."

In addition to trying to declare bankruptcy, the Cariboo diocese hopes to argue in court that its church buildings are held in trust for parishes and should not be seized to pay legal bills, Crawley said. But the future of the church buildings would remain uncertain for a long time, he said, because they would be in the hands of liquidation officials.

If the diocese legally winds up its operations, Archbishop Crawley, as the most senior Anglican in British Columbia, would administer its 40 congregations--whether they continue to gather in existing churches or in rented facilities.

"The idea is to get on with the church's life of worshipping God and serving the world and not be absorbed in legal machinations," he said.

The Anglican Church has maintained that all Anglican dioceses in Canada are run as separate legal and corporate entities, but that has not stopped lawyers from targeting the larger Anglican Church for damages.

The Cariboo diocese stretches some 500 miles from Hope to Prince George, but it is the second smallest in Canada by membership, with only 4,500 members.

Meanwhile, the church's national office in Toronto, which also faces possible bankruptcy because of the cost of fighting lawsuits, this month laid off eight employees and cut an extra $500,000 to balance its budget. Many of the church employees worked for social justice causes, the poor, and Third World development.

Floyd Mowatt, a 40-year-old Gitskan native who received an out-of-court settlement from the Cariboo diocese and the federal government for abuse endured at St. George's school, said Friday, September 8, he couldn't care less if the diocese, the Anglican denomination, or the entire Christian church goes bankrupt.

"I don't know how they think they can get away with this bull," said Mowatt, who sought $5.4 million in damages but won't disclose how much he actually received. Mowatt, who is not Christian, said he regularly argues with Christian native Indians about whether churches should go bankrupt to pay for residential-school abuse.

Crawley blamed the federal government for much of the diocese's problems.

Only one of the eight abuse victims from St. George's actually sued the Anglican diocese, he said. It was the government's practice of cross-suing the churches that led to the diocese's financial quagmire.

Crawley, along with many Canadian Christian leaders, urged Ottawa to agree to a deal with Canada's churches that would limit the church's liability so that all parties could get on with healing and reconciliation with native Indians. Canada's church leaders and the federal government have already apologized for the residential schools, which they admit reflected a mistaken attempt to forcibly assimilate Canada's natives.

The Anglican Church ran about 20 of Canada's residential schools, while the Roman Catholic Church ran most of the rest. Other Canadian church bodies facing possible bankruptcy as a result of lawsuits include the Anglican diocese of Qu'Appelle in Saskatchewan, the Catholic diocese of Whitehorse, and three Western Canadian branches of the Oblate order.

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