An Ontario Christian college now defunct and the estates of two former principals should not be held responsible for the verbal and emotional abuse suffered by students, their lawyers argued in court on Tuesday, saying their clients did not had no way of knowing it would cause any harm.
In February 2020, a judge presiding over a class action suit on behalf of former students said staff at Grenville Christian College were responsible for the systematic abuse of girls and boys attending boarding school in the 1970s, 80s and 90s.
This abuse included repeated references to the girls in their care as “bitches, bitches, jezebels. [and] bitches in heat ”and say that rape is the result of girls and boys being too“ tempting for men ”.
An appeal of the trial court’s decision in favor of the students was heard Tuesday at the Ontario Court of Appeal in Toronto.
The school, located near Brockville, Ontario, about 350 kilometers east of Toronto, was founded in 1973 and touted itself as an Anglican institution. He also had ties to a controversial Christian group in the United States called the Community of Jesus. The school closed in 2007.
Students testified to public shame, abuse
During the trial in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, former students testified that they were regularly ashamed publicly during what the school called “light sessions.” Other students and staff would yell at them and call them names, sometimes for hours on end, for transgressions such as smoking or getting caught alone with a member of the opposite sex. Some say they were also beaten with a paddle hard enough to make them bleed.
Others said their parents were “bad” and said they had endured exorcisms. Girls were reprimanded for behaving like “prostitutes” and being too tempting to men, while boys suspected of being gay were called “queers” and said they would be “damned to the devil”.
A former student said he had 20 “conversion” sessions because staff thought he was gay. He was told that it was his fault for “tempting” his abuser when he was sexually assaulted as a child.
“It made the student feel ashamed and isolated,” Judge Janet Leiper, trial judge, said in her decision. She noted that the sessions did not stop until the student “claims the conversion worked” and declares that he is no longer gay.
The trial was sanctioned for offenses in the form of manual labor. The students were forced to clean the bathrooms with a toothbrush or cut the lawn with a small pair of scissors.
Discipline could last for several days, during which time students were forced to sleep separately from their peers and prohibited from attending classes or talking to classmates.
The students said they lived in “constant fear” and that life was “like a horror movie”.
“Grenville knowingly created an abusive, authoritarian and rigid culture that exploited and controlled the developing adolescents in its care,” Leiper found.
The trial judge found that the “ duty of care ” had been breached
At the Court of Appeal hearing, lawyers acting for the school argued that the trial judge erred in relying on expert testimony based on a set of standards set by representatives from a group of Ontario children’s aid societies in 2016. The class action covers a period from 1973 to 1997.
“It could not be predicted for the people who ran the school, during the time period for the class period … [that] calling people those names was a form of emotional abuse, ”said lawyer Paul Pape, referring to the sexually degrading labels used to describe girls in school.
The trial judge called this type of treatment “sexual violence”. This included demanding sexual confessions, berating students for inciting lust, degrading name-calling, forcing girls to bend over to check swimsuit coverage and denigrating homosexuality.
Leiper concluded that the school “failed in its duty of care” in this area and that the harm to the students was “reasonably foreseeable”.
Pape agreed the facts of the case are “emotionally suggestive,” but said the trial judge had no evidence of the class-action period to reach that conclusion.
“This is the main mistake in this case,” he said.
Lawyers representing the students argued that whether or not the emotional harm was foreseeable was irrelevant, given that the violence was proven to fall outside the standards of the day.
Loretta Merritt told the court that school staff had received several warnings that students were being harmed by their actions.
She said students run away or ask to be removed from school, parents repeatedly write to the school to express concerns about their methods, students cry during sexuality lectures and during the “light sessions” and a student attempted suicide while attending school.
“The defendants cannot say that it was not foreseeable that their behavior or actions would cause harm when they saw the harm their actions were causing,” Merritt said.
“I suggest they knew… and they did it anyway.”
“ It is important for those who have suffered in silence ”
A former student who watched the proceedings said it was ironic that defense lawyers criticized the expert witness called by the plaintiffs’ lawyers when the defense presented no expert testimony at trial.
“The defense did not have expert witnesses because they found no expert witnesses willing to justify the Grenville sect’s abusive practices,” said Andrew Hale-Byrne, who attended school from 1988 to 1990 .
Another former student said they will not give up their fight for justice.
“I think of how many people in positions of authority have used their power to cover up the abuse and how these decades of silence and voicelessness have only deepened the emotional impact of the abuse, violence and damage that caused so much damage, ”said Ewan Whyte, who dated Grenville for three years in the 1980s.
“It is important for those who have suffered in silence.”
The three judges heard on appeal reserved their decision.
For advice on this story, please contact Timothy Sawa at [email protected]