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In the 1980s Canadians were shocked into awareness of the widespread evil of child sexual abuse. Before that era, child sexual abuse was never considered a public health issue; it was thought of by decent people—if thought of at all—as an evil associated with obviously dissolute monsters. Certainly not something any "respectable" citizen would ever do. The sickening truth began to spill out, first in a trickle, then in a torrent we have yet to come fully to terms with.
In Ontario the town name of Cornwall (in particular, but also Prescott and London) became synonymous with an alleged pedophile ring of exactly those "respectable" men considered society's most trustworthy citizens—lawyers, teachers, doctors, police officers and Catholic clergymen—that for decades preyed on young boys to whom they had easy access because of their high-trust positions.
The story began in 1994 with an altar boy's charge that he had been abused by a priest. It broadened into the Ontario Provincial Police-led Project Truth, which in turn raised so many questions that it morphed into the $53 million Cornwall Inquiry. At the time—and perhaps still—this was the largest amount of money Ontario ever assigned to a public inquiry.
The Inquiry involved four years of hearings, 167 witnesses, 3,640 written exhibits, 115 charges laid against 15 men—yet produced only one conviction. (You can see the timeline of events leading to the Cornwall Inquiry here.) Dec. 15 marked the eleventh anniversary of a major report issuing from this deep investigation , named for the report's presiding Justice, G. Norman Glaude.
It was a damning document. I did a bit of research about the alleged Cornwall pedophile rings at the time of the Glaude report. I am using the self-protective word "alleged" because the Glaude Report did not come out definitively with that description. Justice Glaude went only so far as to say, "Throughout this inquiry I have heard evidence that suggested that there were cases of joint abuse, passing of alleged victims, and possibly passive knowledge of abuse," adding "I want to be very clear that I am not going to make a pronouncement on whether a ring existed or not."
But it walked like a duck and it talked like a duck, as you can see in this commentary, and most people who followed the affair closely believe it is a duck.
Today, older Canadians might recall the moral recoil this sordid chapter stirred throughout the nation, but I would guess that for many younger Canadians, the extraordinary blot on Cornwall's civic reputation has been lost to the mists of time. Even older Canadians are probably not aware that of the 235 recommendations in the Glaude Report, most were never realized. The survivors of the abuse are all men who were scarred for life by their experience, and very little in the way of justice—no justice at all for most—was imposed on their abusers.
But another form of justice is in progress. One of the era's survivors, comedian and documentary filmmaker Dave Regnier, is currently at work on a documentary, titled, aptly enough, The Inquiry. It is slated to emerge as a five-part series on Cornwall's disturbing history of child sexual abuse. The film will chronicle the manifold instances of botched procedures and conflicts of interest at the highest levels that prevented the guilty from receiving their just desserts, allowed serial molesters off the hook entirely, or, after a light sentence, free to take up their lives after at most a brief incarceration, exacerbating the anguish of survivors.
Regnier chose not to insert his own story into the film. He could not have maintained his objectivity and detachment as a director, he felt, but nobody is better equipped to understand the sorrow and frustration of those victims whose stories he knows so well. Regnier's own abuser, a trusted teacher, got off lightly, even though over a dozen boys testified to his abuse of them.
The first time Regnier spoke up about his abuse to law enforcement—and it took him 25 years to muster the courage to do so—the detective he spoke to seemed indifferent; he didn't even ask if the teacher was still at the school (he had at that point been forced into retirement after many such accusations), nor did he pass his accusation on for due process. There's not much Regnier can say about it, because of a publication ban, a handy tool for suppressing some sickening facts he hopes eventually to divulge but can't yet.
Suffice to say his life was shattered at the age of 11 and, now in his 40s, is still not whole. For a time he lost his moral compass and ended up imprisoned for defrauding family members and others of nearly $300K in a film scheme. He chronicled his shameful spiral into personal ruin in a well-crafted documentary film the CBC bought and aired in 2013, My Date with Hugh, a story which begins as a lark—a scheme to infiltrate the Playboy Mansion—and ends in abject confession.
Regnier continues to struggle towards peace and a semblance of closure. He still lives in Cornwall, but "nobody talks about it in this town," he told me. By "it" he of course means the town's failure to deal with what survivors consider the unfinished business around their victimization.
There is presently only one place in Cornwall—the Childrens Treatment Centre—where sexually abused children can receive publicly funded therapy. The CTC was created in 1996, and about 2,800 children have received counselling for sexual abuse since then. That seems rather a lot for a town of 46,000 people.
The problem for these kids is that when they are 18, they are on their own, many of them still struggling—no surprise there—and likely to need counselling for many years to come. But there are no funded resources for male survivors over age 18, unless they wait two months between appointments, which can be counterproductive and even dangerous to a fragile psyche.
Regnier himself told me that he was very lucky that through a family connection, he was able to receive treatment at the CTC from 2013 to 2019—hundreds of sessions—until he was 25. The CTC "saved my life," he said. But that is not the norm, even though plenty of other survivors are as broken by their experience as Regnier was.
The problem can't be lack of money. In 2005—Phase Two of the Inquiry, dubbed "healing and reconciliation"—the emphasis was laid on services and programs to prevent future victimization, for which $53 million was allocated. At the time, this ranked—and still may—as the largest sum Ontario ever doled out for a public inquiry. So far, Regnier says, only $22 million has been accounted for, and there are presently no services at all for adult male survivors. One of the main purposes of The Inquiry is to explore the huge gap between the vast sums made available for victim services and preventive measures, and the paucity of evidence for either outcome.
Regnier told me that he had approached the present mayor of Cornwall, Bernadette Clement, to open a discussion about accountability and the lack of help for adult male sexual abuse victims, and nobody in her office even got back to him. He also told me that he had asked Mayor Clement and Cornwall's city council if they cared to review footage of his documentary, but they declined. (I sent a media query to the mayor to ask for the reason she had rebuffed the invitation, but had no reply.)
In a way I can understand the mayor's reluctance to revisit the scandal. Her predecessors cared more about relieving their own embarrassment than in examining the moral rot that produced the foot-dragging and buck-passing that allowed these predators to go about their nasty business for so long. Cornwall's mayor at the time, Bob Kilger, was unhappy at Glaude's temporizing about the "ring," wishing he had categorically rejected the idea. He hated the negative publicity, and was resistant to facing the truth. "I think our image is fine," he said. "If people think for a minute that what happened in Cornwall—I'm sorry, sex abuse goes on in all communities."
How could he honestly say such a thing in 2010, a year after the investigation's conclusion, when Cornwall's child sex abuse rate ranked at 153 percent of the national average. That's a sad example of an embarrassed politician seeking to alleviate his personal discomfort rather than act as a leader in a difficult situation that requires transparency and accountability. But he created a mayoral template it would be difficult for Mayor Clement to repudiate, I suppose. Re-opening the wound would likely provoke civic tension she is doubtless reluctant to deal with on her own watch.
Cornwall is a town, not a city. Ecologically speaking, a city is like a huge lake that can handle the infiltration of a transient rogue species of flora without general harm, but the same infiltration can pollute a pond—a town the size of Cornwall—in its entirety. My guess is that the revelations sparked a panicked circling of the wagons amongst the town's "elites," such as they were, who feared the pollution might poison the waters of their pond forever. A curtain of omerta descended so that normal town life outside a censorious spotlight could return quickly. Sweetening the water of the pond demanded sacrificial victims.
For a flavour of the moral panic that surrounded The Inquiry, it is instructive, for example, to consider the treatment meted out to whistleblower Percy Dunlop, a former Cornwall Police Constable, who paid a very heavy price in the loss of his career and reputation for trying to do the right thing in exposing the alleged pedophile ring. Many Inquiry observers consider him to have been one agreed-upon sacrificial victim. And of course Regnier considers himself and so many other survivors to be the others.
In the documentary, Regnier interviews counterparts of the Cornwall insiders in other cities. These individuals were presented with what they believed was a hypothetical scenario being developed for a movie script, but was in fact the Cornwall Inquiry, warts and all. When apprised of the truth, they were amazed by the incompetency, irregularities, bias and callousness exhibited toward the victims (a prosecutor asked one victim testifying about his rapist if he "enjoyed it"). In the film, counsellors, former judges, therapists, former FBI agents, lawyers, detectives and victims of child sex abuse share their knowledge and opinions on how The Inquiry should have been conducted.
Finally, I can't help editorializing a bit on something I noticed at the time of my own research on Glaude's report, and that was a curious genderized semantic migration between intention and action. All the mainstream media covered the Glaude Report's release. But even though in his 75-minute verbal statement Justice Glaude referenced those abused 17 times as "males" or "men," almost all the media referenced them as "victims," "the vulnerable," or "young people" (the 115 charges laid were all for abuse of boys). The CBC used the word "men" to describe the offenders, the abused as "victims." Only the National Post referred specifically to male pain—twice—and the Globe and Mail once. Eventually the focus shifted to girls and women. A Program was put in place to flag abuse to girls age 12 and over in 25 Ontario health units, but no programs were targeted at reducing the abuse of boys.
If the boy victims of Cornwall had been the girl victims of Cornwall, would there be a treatment centre to deal with their ongoing pain as adults? I think there would be. I think some of those missing millions of dollars would have been spent in creating a beautiful centre, well staffed with caring therapists, enough of them to ensure that not a single woman had to wait for an appointment, even if she needed therapy for the rest of her life.
The boy victims of Cornwall—now the men victims of Cornwall—deserve better. Let us hope that Dave Regnier's documentary helps to clear out the slimy weeds still lying in a dark, tangled heap at the bottom of that eastern Ontario pond.