JUSTICE

The search for solutions to sexual abuse

JANE O'HARA January 27 1986
JUSTICE

The search for solutions to sexual abuse

JANE O'HARA January 27 1986

In August, 1984, the Committee on Sexual Offences Against Children and Youths jolted a complacent nation when it reported that more than 15 per cent of all Canadians experience sexual abuse during their childhoods. Toronto sociologist Robin Badgley, chairman of the 11-member federally appointed committee, recommended extensive changes in the Criminal Code to deal with the problem and to punish offenders. His report declared that for the government to ignore his findings “would be negligence.” Eighteen months later the Conservative government has not implemented any of Badgley’s major reforms. But last week Justice Minister John Crosbie undertook to introduce new legislation soon. In an address to an Ottawa conference on youth and the law, Crosbie declared, “Our criminal justice system has failed the alarming number of Canadian children who have fallen victim to sexual abuse and exploitation.” At the same time, the growing number of sex abuse cases reaching the courts demonstrates that it will take more than simple legislation to cure one of society’s oldest and most sordid practices.

In one case, former teacher and school principal Robert Olav Noyes, 37, pleaded guilty in the British Columbia Supreme Court on Jan. 7 to 19 counts of indecent and sexual assault against his pupils. The court learned that Noyes had committed his crimes over a 15-year period before police finally arrested and charged him. In another case, now being heard in Hamilton, Ont., the local Children’s Aid Society is seeking permanent custody of two young sisters who have given chilling testimony about sexual abuse, ritual murder and even cannibalism by their father, mother and her boyfriend. That case has focused attention on Badgley’s controversial recommendation to permit the conviction of molesters on the basis of testimony from children. And in other cases brought to court since his recommendations, accused sex offenders have used the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to elude prosecution.

For many parents of abused children, and for the children themselves, the prospect of dealing with police and the adversarial court process still appears to be so formidable that they never press charges at all. But those who do are confronted by an increasingly strained support system. In Halifax, for one, where Children’s Aid Society workers now deal with about 50 cases each, there is a three-month waiting period for psychological treatment of sexual abuse. Similar inadequacies exist throughout the country, according to Neville Avison of the federal department of justice, who recently reported on public reaction to Badgley’s report after meeting with 200 concerned groups nationwide. In his report Avison wrote, “It was believed to be useless or worse than useless for the federal government to address the legal concerns without having plans for the infrastructure of programs and services that would be required.”

Still, most experts say that the public discussion of a once-forbidden subject has encouraged more victims to come forward. Statistically, the increasing number of reported sexual abuse cases against children is skyrocketing. In Ottawa the police department has experienced a 50-per-cent increase in reported sexual assaults since 1984. In Halifax a much-publicized 1984 trial of a father and babysitter for the torture-murder of four-year-old Teddy Machielsen provoked such an outcry that the provincial government mounted a media campaign which stressed that anyone who knew of sexual abuse was legally obliged to report it. There, reported cases of sexual abuse against children rose to 111 in 1984 from only seven in I 1982. In Vancouver, since police set up a six-member sexual assault squad in 1983, the number of reported abuse cases doubled to 110 cases last year. One victim, a 43-day-old girl, had been sexually assaulted. Said Dr. John Blatherwick, Vancouver’s chief medical health officer: “We don’t know whether child sexual abuse is more prevalent now. But the number of cases being reported has increased dramatically.”

That increase has often led to legal confusion. The Hamilton case in particular has drawn attention to the credibility of child witnesses. In that case, the sisters’ foster mother testified that police refused to believe her when she told them about the girls’ allegations, which included accounts of graveyard orgies, torture and the forced feeding of the flesh of other children. One social worker testified that on one occasion the children had shown affection for their father, whom they had accused of at least three murders. At another time one of the children said, “None of it happened, my mom didn’t hurt me.” But the social worker added that she did not believe that confession, in part because experts who examined the children had concluded that the stories were substantially true.

Many lawyers oppose Badgley’s recommendation to change the laws which now prevent many children under 14 from testifying. They argue that during the trial process repeated interrogation might inadvertently encourage the child’s imagination to run rampant or implant information that was never there in the first place. Harold Levy, for one, editor of the Criminal Lawyers Association Newsletter, said that allowing uncorroborated testimony from children incapable of understanding an oath would be “incredibly dangerous.” He added: “There seems to be a ‘believe-the-children movement’ which is tied into the children’s-rights issue. But they don’t have the right to be believed just because they are children.”

For support, Levy cited a case in Jordan, Minn., in which seven children accused several adults of crimes much like those which the Hamilton girls described. Encouraged by a crusading district attorney, police arrested 24 adults and the case gained worldwide attention. But the investigation ended abruptly when the children confessed to lying, and all charges were dropped.

For their part, supporters of Badgley’s recommendation that children’s evidence “should be received and considered in the same light as that of adults” admit that it presents difficulties. Said Dr. Marcellina Mian, director of the Suspected Child Abuse and Neglect program at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children: “Often there is no witness, no medical evidence, and if the child’s testimony must be corroborated, it is very difficult.” Still, Badgley’s supporters maintain that the present system is unjust. Said Lorna Grant, coordinator of the Metropolitan Toronto Special Committee on Child Abuse: “Kids should have the same rights as adults.” Added Elizabeth Currie, a case manager at the Child Protection Centre at Winnipeg’s Children’s Hospital: “Small children can tell very well what happened to them. They have no reason to lie.”

Advocates of legal reform are also concerned about recent court rulings based on the charter which, they say, have been in favor of sexual offenders rather than children. Previously, the laws have stated that children under 14 were considered incapable of consenting to a sexual act with an adult more than three years older. But last year a B.C. Supreme Court judge ruled that an accused child molester can raise consent as a defence because the law was discriminatory on the basis of age. In another case, the section of the Criminal Code prohibiting a male from having sexual intercourse with a female under 14 was ruled discriminatory on the basis of sex because it did not apply to female offenders and male victims.

For her part, Maude Barlow, who was former prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s adviser on women’s issues, is currently organizing a group to protest such rulings. Said Barlow: “The goal of the charter is equality of results, and we have to realize that some are not equal to begin with, and interpret the charter creatively.” Added John Pepper, a Crown attorney in Pembroke, Ont.: “On the face of it, the charter is being used as a bill of rights for child molesters. It’s ironic.”

Many police and social workers have begun to deal with the increase in sexual abuse cases by setting up special programs, including procedures to help children through what is almost always a traumatic experience. Already, Vancouver police are using new investigative techniques and trained volunteers to try to make the process less intimidating to children. In one case a Crown counsel used a McDonald’s restaurant as her office to interview a child before a trial. In Toronto specially trained social workers use everything from anatomically correct dolls to art therapy to find out what has occurred. In a particularly imaginative move last month, award-winning children’s dramatist Dennis Foon, artistic director of Vancouver’s Greenthumb Theatre for Young People, coedited a book entitled Am I the Only One?, a collection of stories and poems, with accompanying pictures, by child victims. Said Foon: “For any child who is suspected of being sexually abused, it will be a very valuable therapeutic tool.”

For their part, many police experts say that until laws change to make it easier and less traumatic to prosecute child sex abuse many cases will still fail to reach court. Vancouver police investigated 85 incidents involving sexual offences from last October to December and laid 33 charges. But in more than half the cases where charges were laid, the victims or parents chose not to pursue the matter. Clearly, John Crosbie and other federal justice officials face a challenging array of legal, ethical and moral issues in their quest to resolve one of the most controversial and compelling issues of the day.