A now-defunct Ontario Christian college and the estates of two former headmasters shouldn’t be held accountable for verbal and emotional abuse suffered by students, their lawyers argued in court on Tuesday, saying their clients had no way of knowing it would cause harm.
In February 2020, a judge presiding over a class-action lawsuit on behalf of former students found the staff at Grenville Christian College responsible for systematically abusing girls and boys who attended the boarding school in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s.
That abuse included repeated references to girls in their care as “sluts, whores, Jezebels [and] bitches in heat” and saying rape is the result of girls and boys being too “tempting to men.”
An appeal of the trial court decision in favour of the students was heard in the Ontario Court of Appeal in Toronto on Tuesday.
The school, located near Brockville, Ont., about 350 kilometres east of Toronto, was founded in 1973 and advertised itself as an Anglican institution. It also had ties to a controversial Christian group in the United States called the Community of Jesus. The school closed in 2007.
Students testified about public shaming, abuse
At the trial in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, former students testified they were routinely publicly shamed in what the school called “light sessions.” Fellow students and staff would scream at them and call them names, sometimes for hours, for transgressions such as smoking or being caught alone with a member of the opposite sex. Some say they also experienced beatings with a paddle hard enough to make them bleed.
Others were told their parents were “evil” and said they endured exorcisms. Girls were chastised for behaving like “prostitutes” and being too tempting for men, while boys suspected of being gay were called “faggots” and told they would be “damned to hell.”
One former student said he endured 20 “conversion” sessions because staff believed he was gay. He was told it was his fault for “tempting” his abuser when he was sexually molested as a child.
“This led to the student feeling ashamed and isolated,” Justice Janet Leiper, the trial judge, said in her ruling. She noted that the sessions didn’t stop until the student “pretended the conversion worked” and said he was no longer gay.
Punishment for infractions came in the form of manual labour, the trial heard. Students were forced to clean bathrooms with a toothbrush or cut the lawn with a small pair of scissors.
Discipline could last several days, during which students were made to sleep separately from their peers and banned from attending classes or speaking to classmates.
Students said they lived in “constant fear” and that life was “like a horror film.”
“Grenville knowingly created an abusive, authoritarian and rigid culture which exploited and controlled developing adolescents who were placed in its care,” Leiper found.
Trial judge found ‘duty of care’ breached
During the Appeal Court hearing, lawyers acting for the school argued that the trial judge erred by relying on expert testimony based on a set of standards established by representatives from a group of children’s aid societies in Ontario in 2016. The class-action suit covers a period from 1973 to 1997.
“It could not be foreseeable to the people who were running the school, during the period of time for the class period … [that] calling people these names was a form of emotional abuse,” lawyer Paul Pape said, referring to the sexually degrading labels used to describe girls at the school.
The trial judge described this kind of treatment as “sexualized abuse.” This included requiring sexual confessions, berating students for inciting lust, degrading name-calling, requiring girls to bend over to check for bathing suit coverage and vilification of homosexuality.
Leiper found that the school “breached its duty of care” in this area and that the harm to students was “reasonably foreseeable.”
Pape agreed that the facts of the case are “emotionally evocative” but said the trial judge had no proof from the time period covered by the class-action suit to arrive at this conclusion.
“That’s the major error in the case,” he said.
Lawyers representing the students argued it’s irrelevant whether the emotional harm was foreseeable or not, given that the abuse was proven to be out of step with standards of the day.
Loretta Merritt told the court that staff at the school had several warnings that students were being harmed by their actions.
She said students were running away or asking to be taken out of school, parents repeatedly wrote to the school expressing concerns about their methods, students were crying during lectures about sexuality and during “light sessions” and one student attempted suicide while attending the school.
“The defendants can’t say it wasn’t foreseeable that their behaviour or actions would cause harm when they saw the harm their actions were causing,” Merritt said.
“I suggest they did know … and they did it anyway.”
‘This is important for those who suffered in silence’
One former student who watched the proceedings said it’s ironic that defence lawyers are criticizing the expert witness called by lawyers for the plaintiffs when the defence presented no expert testimony at the trial.
“The defence had no expert witnesses, because they could not find any expert witnesses willing to justify the abusive practices at the Grenville cult,” said Andrew Hale-Byrne, who attended the school from 1988 to 1990.
Another former student said they will not give up their fight for justice.
“I think of how so many of those in authority have used their power to cover up the abuse and how these decades of silence and voicelessness have only compounded the emotional impact of the abuse, violence and harm that have left so many damaged,” said Ewan Whyte, who attended Grenville for three years in the 1980s.
“This is important for those who have suffered in silence.”
The three judges hearing the appeal reserved their decision.
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