Kids' Safety and Sexual Predators

She bears the burden of it still, more than a year after finally summoning the courage to reveal her terrible secret. So call her Carol. It is not her real name but it does offer whatever small comfort anonymity can provide.

Kids' Safety and Sexual Predators

She bears the burden of it still, more than a year after finally summoning the courage to reveal her terrible secret. So call her Carol. It is not her real name but it does offer whatever small comfort anonymity can provide. She was only 13 years old when it started; a five-foot, 95-pound waif with enough talent as a gymnast to compete at the provincial level in her native British Columbia. "It would not happen in the gym," she recalls. "He would offer me a ride home and then stop at his house and it would happen there." "He" was Wayne Andrews, then 29, a muscular, aggressive former soldier who also happened to be one of Carol's gymnastic club coaches. And "it" usually consisted of kissing and heavy-handed groping on Andrews's part. "I knew it was wrong," says Carol now, "but I thought it was my fault because I never actually said the word 'No' to him."

Andrews regularly molested Carol for three months. The incidents did not cease, in fact, until he left the club for reasons unrelated to his behavior. But even that did not bring an end to Carol's torment. For two long years, she struggled to come to terms with often overwhelming feelings of shame, guilt and embarrassment. "I wouldn't go to meets where he lived," she remembers. "I'd freak out. I'd end up crying." The pressure continued to build until, finally, it all came apart shortly before Christmas in 1994. "He called my house to say Merry Christmas to me," recounts Carol, who was by then a 15-year-old high-school student in British Columbia's Lower Mainland. "I'd been carrying it around for two years and I couldn't deal with it any more. I had to tell someone. So I told a few friends at the gym and they told me to tell my mother."

Carol's mother, of course, was stunned. "It simply never occurred to me," says the woman who, like her daughter, finds it particularly difficult to deal with the fact that Andrews was no stranger to the family. "That's what is really horrifying," she confesses with a mixture of dread and amazement. "The fellow would come to our house for dinner. In hindsight, you feel like an idiot." Carol's mother launched a complaint that eventually led to a court case. Last October, Andrews, after pleading guilty to sexual interference, was sentenced to a year in prison. For Carol, it amounted to a vindication of sorts, a chance to finally shed dark memories and begin to heal. But for Carol's mother, the unhappy affair left in its wake a disquieting concern. "My kid had all the streetproofing things they did at school, all the things you try to explain to kids," she remarks, before asking: "I wonder why it didn't work."

Plenty of other parents across Canada are experiencing similar anxieties, particularly if their children take part in programs where they come in close contact with adult mentors. Graham James is largely responsible for that. Ever since the Western Hockey League coach was sent to prison last month for SEXUALLY ASSAULTING two of his players, attention has focused on the yawning potential for sexual abuse in sports. Not surprisingly, the spotlight has fallen on hockey, with new scandals surfacing almost daily as those in charge of the game scramble to contain the damage. But, as Carol's case so graphically illustrates, the problem is not confined to hockey. Nor is it just within organized sport. What may be emerging, in fact, are the symptoms of an old malaise that stretches far more widely, and reaches far more deeply, than even the most worried parent dares contemplate.

That, at least, is the view of many experts in the field. Paddy Bowen, executive director of Volunteer Canada, an Ottawa-based clearing house for community-based organizations, goes so far as to "guarantee" that CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE "is happening this minute in almost every community working with children you can imagine. It is happening with Boy Scouts, it is happening in Big Brothers and hockey and soccer and swimming. It is happening right now. It is not every second person but it is also not one in a million. We know that."

If the accounts surfacing in public are any indication, Bowen may not be exaggerating. Wayne Andrews was only one of three British Columbia-based gymnastics coaches convicted on sexual offences during a three-month period late last year. Right now, three minor hockey officials-in Winnipeg, Calgary and Grand Forks, B.C.-are either under investigation or facing charges on sex counts. Nuns in Newfoundland and a former scoutmaster in Ontario face lawsuits arising from physical, emotional and sexual ABUSE of youngsters in their care. At least five adults have been arrested across the land since early December for possessing computer-generated child pornography, including a respected physicist in Ottawa and the bespectacled cantor of a Halifax synagogue.

The list goes on. In Ottawa, a former army cadet volunteer was to appear in court this week on charges of gross indecency involving twin brothers for whom he became legal guardian in the late 1970s. In Montreal, a 47-year-old day care worker with a previous conviction for sexual assault on children was found guilty of molesting two toddlers and ordered held in custody for sentencing. In Nova Scotia, the government had to temporarily suspend a program under which it had budgeted $33 million last May to compensate childhood victims of abuse at three provincial youth institutions. The reason: quickly swamped with 1,250 separate claims, it was "collapsing under its own weight," according to Justice Minister Jay Abass.

None of these incidents had anything to do with the furor that erupted when Sheldon Kennedy of the NHL's Boston Bruins unveiled his harrowing tale of the sexual abuse he suffered while playing junior hockey for Graham James in Swift Current, Sask. But the publicity the scandal attracted has clearly had an effect, directing the public's eye into some of society's darker and dirtier corners. Kennedy's courage in stepping forward has prompted others to do the same. In one of the more dramatic episodes, Larry Hendrick, a 41-year-old Edmonton teacher, painted in detail the sexual advances-and attempted sexual blackmail-he was forced to endure while a 16-year-old player toiling for the late Brian Shaw, one of Western Canada's junior hockey legends. What is more, he told reporters that at least 30 of Shaw's former players had telephoned him with reports of similar experiences. "There were three players in particular who broke down on the phone," said Hendrick. "It was the first time these guys had told anybody about what happened to them."

Beyond hockey, the James affair continues to reverberate. On Jan. 13 in Halifax, for example, Provincial Court Judge Hughes Randall invoked that case as he sentenced Frank C. Hurshman, 41, of Queensland, N.S., to 15 months in jail after Hurshman pleaded guilty to indecency in a case involving a mentally handicapped boy who was occasionally in his care. "No doubt you've probably taken into account the way the press, radio and TV dealt with the story [about James] and the way the situation is viewed by the public," said Randall, in passing sentence. "The child was in your care, under your wing. And whether you're supposed to be building camps with him in the woods or coaching them as a hockey player, it's considered to be most serious and reprehensible."

Reprehensible, certainly, but neither rare nor particularly new. Pedophiles have been around almost as long as there have been children, and there is no shortage of them in Canada. In Vancouver, the police department recently disclosed that it has been searching for the past five years for the person who has been leaving obscene letters along a stretch of Cambie Street, not far from the city's downtown. Authorities have recovered more than 50 letters-some crudely illustrated, a few handwritten, most of them typed-recounting in salacious detail repeated incidents of abuse of young children. "There is such a wealth of information that all the experts feel very strongly that he has committed many molestations," says Const. Anne Drennan. "We believe the victims are children of family, friends, neighbors, kids that he has been babysitting. It's not a random thing."

Last November, parents in and around Halifax breathed a collective sigh of relief when Ernest Warner went to a federal penitentiary for two years after being convicted of stalking students at 13 area high schools. In court, the Crown described the 54-year-old Sackville, N.B. resident, incredibly a foster parent of two toddlers at the time of his arrest last June, as a self-confessed "active pedophile, strongly attracted to prepubescent children, males and females." Local police had been investigating Warner for five months, following the attempted abduction of a Sackville schoolgirl. Police officers told the court about Warner's driving habits, which involved racing "like a maniac" from school to school, then slowing down whenever he spotted students. When they arrested Warner, he had a stack of chocolate candy on the front seat of his car.

Despite the pernicious nature of the problem, there is a dearth of accurate data on the damage that pedophiles wreak. The Canadian Institute of Child Health, a nonprofit organization, claims that, before the age of 18, one in four girls and one in eight boys are tricked, bribed or forced into sexual activity by a teenager or adult. According to a B.C. survey in 1992, more than 20 per cent of Grade 9 girls reported that they had been sexually abused.

But those numbers offer only a glimpse of the problem. There are, in fact, no reliable national statistics, primarily because of the difficulty in gathering data about what has been, and remains, a hidden crime. Because child welfare is a provincial responsibility, each province compiles its own figures in line with its own definitions. "This has been a really big problem for us," complains Valerie Fronczek, executive director of the Society for Children and Youth of British Columbia, an advocacy group financed largely by the United Way and private funds. "It makes it difficult to prove if things are getting any better or any worse."

The most extensive national study on the prevalence of sexual offences against the young was the Badgley Report, published in 1984 by the Committee on Sexual Offenses Against Children and Youths under the chairmanship of Robin Badgley. It found that 53 per cent of females and 31 per cent of males have been victims of unwanted sexual acts, with roughly 80 per cent of those incidents involving victims under the age of 18. A related population survey concluded that three-quarters of the victims were girls.

Gordon Phaneuf, chief of the Child Maltreatment Surveillance Division at Health Canada in Ottawa, acknowledges that the Badgley statistics are now "clearly dated." All the same, he argues that they "still give you a sense of how broad the problem is." More positively, experts agree that old taboos surrounding the subject of child abuse are beginning to disappear. "The climate has definitely changed," says Phaneuf. "Many more children and adults are willing to disclose their abuse, ready to speak out about the experiences they have suffered."

Fronczek, of the B.C. Society for Children and Youth, illustrates the same point by noting that people were unwilling to talk about child sexual abuse when her organization conducted its first research into the subject in 1979. "If they did talk, it would be to say that they were sure that, yes, it did happen, but probably not that much, not that often," she says. "They would say it was an aberration and we don't really want to give it much attention. But as the years unfolded, it has got a lot of attention. It is an interesting statement on us all. There are things we just don't want to face. But over the years we have had to."

The James case certainly helped accelerate the process. Ever since the hockey scandal burst into public view, organizations dealing with youth across the country have been bombarded with inquiries. And the people in charge of organized hockey, in particular, have scrambled to introduce reforms. The Canadian Hockey League, the umbrella organization overseeing the level of junior hockey that James coached, hired Toronto sports lawyer Gordon Kirke to conduct a one-man inquiry into the game's ills.

Individual teams, meanwhile, have been adopting their own measures. Officials at the Sarnia Sting of the Ontario Hockey League established a 24-hour sexual abuse hotline for its players. Farther north, the owners of the Owen Sound Platers appointed a respected local policeman to act as a "surrogate uncle" for any player in need of advice. Typical of what has been happening elsewhere in the country is the situation at Sask Sport, a federation of the province's 72 sports governing bodies. "In the past few weeks the phones have been ringing off the hook big time," says Noreen Murphy, the federation's sports development co-ordinator. "It's mostly parents, but I've had young kids call me too. 'What can we do? Where can we go? Who can we trust?' These are the kinds of questions that are coming out."

They are good questions, even if there are few easy answers to them. Jan Brown, the former Reform MP from Calgary who is seeking the nod to join the Conservative party, is promoting one approach. In a private member's bill she has placed before Parliament, Brown is attempting to establish a national registry of pedophiles, making public the names and whereabouts of anyone convicted of two sexual offences involving children. Brown also supports the use of so-called chemical castration-lowering the testosterone level, and thereby the sex drive, of offenders with regular drug dosages.

The governments of Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia have established various forms of screening to weed out potential molesters from any job involving children. And the federal government is moving along the same path. In 1994, Ottawa launched a national education campaign on screening and asked Volunteer Canada to head it. In the past two years, the organization has developed a screening handbook-a kind of how-to manual-and produced a video narrated by actor Al Waxman. But even the most stringent screening will not eliminate all cases of child sexual abuse. Volunteer Canada's executive director Bowen is among the first to admit that much, acknowledging: "There are no guarantees."

Perhaps the victims are in the best position to offer guidance. Carol certainly falls into that category, as, to a lesser extent, does her mother. "One of the mistakes I made was assuming that if something was wrong, my child would tell me," says the young B.C. gymnast's parent. As for Carol herself, now a 17-year-old Grade 12 student and still heavily involved in gymnastics, her counsel is more succinct. For youngsters, she advises doing what she could not do-talk. "If anything happens that you don't like, get it out in the open right away," she says. And for parents: "Listen. No matter how far-fetched it seems, check it out." It is probably good advice. After all, Carol does speak from painful experience.

A CAUTIONARY TALE

Five years later, the nightmare continues for Ron and Linda Sterling. Accused and ultimately aquitted of child sex-abuse charges alleged to have occurred at the day care centre in their Martensville, Sask., home, the Sterlings have yet to put their shattered lives together. They have gone from being the accused in a case that rivetted national attention, to the victims of a criminal justice system that seemingly went terribly wrong. "It has destroyed our lives completely," says Ron Sterling, who has been unemployed since he and his wife were found not guilty in February, 1994. "We lost our home, our vehicle and our reputation." Now in Prince Albert, Sask., the couple lives off pension funds and a severance Ron Sterling got when he was forced to leave his administrative job at the provincial correctional institution in Saskatoon. With the cloud of Martensville hanging over them, even finding a home to live in has been a challenge. "It took us five months before someone would rent us a place," says Sterling.

Initially, nine people, including five police officers, were charged with 170 counts in what was said to be a child sex-abuse ring operating out of the Sterlings' home in the quiet bedroom community 10 km north of Saskatoon. Only the Sterlings' then 25-year-old son, Travis, and a female young offender were found guilty. But the young offender's conviction was later reversed on appeal. Charges against five others were eventually stayed by the Crown due to a lack of evidence.

Ron Sterling remains adamant that his son, convicted on eight counts of physical and sexual assault, is also innocent. He is demanding a public airing of what happened to expose what he says was a misguided prosecution based on fabrications planted in the pliable minds of young children by incompetent police interrogation. But current and past Saskatchewan justice ministers have steadfastly refused to reopen the case. Five civil lawsuits are pending against the police, prosecutors and the Saskatchewan government, including a suit launched by the Sterlings seeking $11.6 million in damages.

If there is a lesson from Martensville, it is that suggestions of sexual abuse, especially involving young children, must be handled with care and professionalism. The Martensville case rested almost exclusively on the testimony of children aged 2 to 9, with no corroborating forensic or eyewitness evidence. Dr. David Raskin, a former University of Utah psychology professor who has studied roughly 500 child-abuse cases, testified for the defence at the Sterlings' trial. "The interview techniques used on the children were horrendous," Raskin told Maclean's. "They put extreme pressure on the kids who initially denied anything happened. In that sense, it was the worst case I've seen."

There have been positive developments in the wake of the Martensville trial. One was the revision of a protocol used in Saskatchewan to guide police and government officials in dealing with child-abuse allegations. A key change now ensures that children are not interviewed numerous times. Another development was the appointment in 1994 of a children's advocate, Dr. Deborah Parker-Loewen. "Undoubtedly," says Parker-Loewen, "the Martensville case was a major factor in coming up with a more co-ordinated approach to dealing with these situations."

What remains a mystery about Martensville is how authorities and the public could have been so swept up by what were truly horrific allegations. Early in the investigation, an internal police memo warned officers to be on the alert for a satanic cult engaged in the trade of young children. Whatever the reason for such an extreme reaction, the result remains the same for those whose lives have been entangled with the Martensville affair. "In some ways, it would have been better to have been accused of murder," says Ron Sterling. "There is nothing worse than what happened to us."

Maclean's February 10, 1997