A column of Dr. Dineen in

Not all abuse claims deserve money

February 14, 2002


Decades ago, misguided government policies resulted in thousands of children being placed in residential schools. In the 1990s, we questioned this well-intentioned philosophy. We came to look back on these institutions as dens of physical, psychological and sexual abuse.

But in the rush to make amends, governments compounded their mistakes. The newly released Kaufman report, Searching For Justice, is a riveting account of such harm. Written by Fred Kaufman, former justice of the Quebec Court of Appeal, it chronicles an in-depth investigation into Nova Scotia's handling of reports of institutional abuse and its program of compensation to a staggering total of 1,246 "victims." Using phrases like "recipe for disaster," he describes how "pernicious notions" contaminated the process, causing it to be "so flawed, that it left in its wake true victims of abuse who are now assumed by many to have defrauded the government, innocent employees who have been branded as abusers, and a public confused and unenlightened about the extent to which young people were or were not abused while in the care of the province of Nova Scotia."

Instead of alleviating pain, it distorted justice and left both the genuine victims and the falsely accused forever under a cloud of suspicion.

This happened, Kaufman said, because "The government was swept up by the prevailing opinion that abuse was widespread and systemic."

While he doesn't identify the source of this influence, I attribute it to advocates of social justice. Chanting the mantra of "revictimization," altering words' meanings to fit their cause and assuming guilt based on anecdotes, their dogmatic ideas, assumptions and attitudes have infiltrated media, politics and governments.

They have us tiptoeing around, hesitating to doubt the honesty of anyone who claims to have been abused and fearing to reject subjective definitions of abuse like the one in a 1995 Nova Scotia audit that held abuse to be "usually someone exerting power over someone else, leaving the victim feeling powerless."

It was this Alice-In-Wonderland mentality that led to genuine cases being lumped in with false ones. Even eminent jurists, it seems, have come to view reality through a social justice lens. In 1995, the former chief justice of New Brunswick, Stuart Stratton, undertook an investigation in Nova Scotia and concluded, "the abuse claims presented to him (by 89 former residents) were generally reliable and accurate."

Presuming the credibility of the claims, however, he did little to investigate.

Sixty-nine claimants, Kaufman said, alleged they'd been abused. Eleven supplied accounts in writing only. Stratton saw just one of the 58 others. No one provided accounts under oath. No comparisons were made between accounts given to Stratton and to the RCMP. At least three former residents who made allegations against a staff member weren't even at the school when he was.

"That a jurist of Mr. Stratton's stature found the abuse claims to be generally reliable and accurate," Kaufman says, "could only contribute to the perception of the public and the government that an objective, detailed investigation had confirmed the existence of widespread systemic abuse, perpetuated through a 'conspiracy of silence and inaction.'"

Once Stratton's assumption was accepted as fact, accusations went unquestioned. Claims swelled. The accused, tainted with assumed guilt, were excluded from the process. More than $61 million of taxpayers' money disappeared.

From Mount Cashel Orphanage in Newfoundland, to Grandview School for Girls in Ontario, to Jericho School in Vancouver, clouds of doubt should be rising.

The moral and financial costs may already be unbearable. Last December, when the Diocese of the Cariboo became the first Anglican diocese in the Commonwealth to be sued into bankruptcy, we felt a ripple of shock. There are many more to come.

Last week, the anticipated financial crisis caused the Anglican Church of Canada to break away from the other churches involved in multimillion-dollar residential school lawsuits in a desperate attempt to negotiate independently with the federal government so it might avoid collapse. Ottawa had announced that it was considering lumping thousands of claims of residential-school abuse into one class action suit in which compensation would likely be meted out with little attention to separating real from false victims.

Other nations, too, are caving in. In Ireland last week, an agreement was worked out for up to $680 million of public and religious funds to be paid in compensation and counselling to about 3,500 claimants who were former students in state schools.

Recently, Lord Woolf, the Lord Chief Justice of England, expressed concerns similar to Kaufman's when he said child abuse allegations "were easy to make" and might be motivated by claims for compensation.
He urged fellow judges "to use their discretion to make sure juries did not hear overtly prejudicial evidence. With pedophiles it can be very difficult; the natural reaction is one that we have got to protect the children, and juries will be affected by this. It may be that in some respects in relation to some sexual offences the balance has gone the wrong way already."

But will governments listen? Will they ever learn?

I certainly hope they heed Kaufman's reminder of their duty to "educate the public to recognize, and avoid, myths, stereotypes and assumptions. Although government must be alert to public opinion, it cannot be swept away by an uninformed public. In this regard, it must lead, not simply follow."

But I fear that, instead, they'll continue to blindly follow the pied-piper call of social justice until, in some future decade, attention becomes focused on these abuses of today.

@ Dr.Tana Dineen

by Dr. Tana Dineen, special columnist, The Vancouver Sun