Former students at a now-shuttered private boarding school in Eastern Ontario have won a class-action lawsuit against the administration that abused them over the course of decades.
Ontario Superior Court Justice Janet Leiper said the school’s practices created an “abusive, authoritarian, and rigid culture which exploited and controlled developing adolescents” and awarded damages to students who lived on the premises between 1973 and 1997.
Beginning in 1969, Grenville Christian College offered primary- and secondary-school education under the auspices of the Anglican Diocese of Ontario. The school was located in the countryside near Brockville, a city close to the Canada-U.S. Border.
Defense lawyer Geoff Adair told reporters that his clients are considering an appeal.
But if they want to get off the hook for the kinds of horrific abuse described in Leiper’s grueling 75-page decision, they don’t need a lawyer; they need a miracle-worker.
If descriptions of physical and mental abuse disturb you, you may want to skip this post.
The saga of abuse starts in 1973, when the school’s first headmaster, Alastair Haig, implemented a “tough love” approach based on the rules of a (still-extant) Massachusetts monastic assemblage called the Community of Jesus. All staff members were expected to pay a tithe to the Community of Jesus, tying the two communities together financially. Former staff member Joan Childs testified that the school’s teachers and administrators believed, based on the Community’s teachings, that “nobody is intrinsically good.”
If nobody is good, it seemed, the role of education was to make children aware of their intrinsic badness and encourage them to repent. Childs told the court that teachers at the school were expected to “break down” willful students so they could be rebuilt as obedient Christians.
Students testified about corporal punishment administered via bare-bottom paddling. Students were also made to perform manual labor as punishment for perceived infractions — even for physical illness… Sometimes they had no idea what infraction they had committed.
Arguably worse was the psychological abuse.
Students were publicly humiliated at school-wide assemblies. Privacy and autonomy were considered irrelevant. Cross-gender friendships were subject to discipline… but, of course, same-sex friendships that were too close could also be suspect. Students perceived as gay were humiliated and put through conversion therapy exercises.
Even students’ thoughts were controlled; they could incur punishment for exhibiting too much self-acceptance or appearing to have negative opinions of the cafeteria food. Students were expected to look “cheerful,” although at least one boy reported receiving punishment for “smiling too much.”
And the list goes on.
Haig positioned his approach in opposition to “permissive parenting,” but experts testified that these disciplinary methods were harmful to students’ physical and mental well-being.
According to Loretta Merritt, the lawyer representing former students in the lawsuit, the school administration was more than just complicit in the abuse of its students; abuse was built into the school’s policy.
It wasn’t about being complicit; it was active, intentional teaching. The headmasters of the school were doing this on purpose because they believed it was the way to God. So it wasn’t about a few rogue staff going off and doing inappropriate things. This was the agenda. This was the agenda of the school, to get everybody in line.
The school closed in 2007, the same year that the Bishop of Ontario began investigating allegations of abuse that implicated the school’s administration as well as the Community of Jesus. At the time, mental health expert Steve Hassan commented on one former student’s testimony:
In reading this complaint, it sounds like a number of themes have been touched upon here that have the characteristics of a destructive cult. The breaking down, forcing people to do behaviors that are denigrating, the language, the control of behavior, that if you’re not doing what the group wants, you’re violating God’s will. It’s certainly abusive personality control, and it’s very much an example of what I remember from the Community of Jesus.
Hassan has a history of working with former Community of Jesus members, who began to reach out to him as early as 1985 for help with mental health problems resulting from the Community’s strict discipline and profoundly damaging teachings.
If that is what God wants for his people, he certainly doesn’t deserve our worship. But it seems a lot more plausible that these extreme control tactics are the work of ordinary men and women with a twisted taste for power and control, bolstering their own paltry authority in the name of the Lord.
(Image via Shutterstock. Thanks to Terry for the link)