Mar 1, 2016

Former Grenville Christian College students tell harrowing stories of abuse

Ben Spurr
Toronto Star
February 29, 2016

Grenville Christian College shut down in 2007.
Grenville Christian College shut down in 2007.
It’s been nearly a decade since the Grenville Christian College closed, but some of the institution’s former students say they’re still haunted by what happened behind its doors.

From 1973 until it shut down in 2007, the elite private boarding school northeast of Brockville, Ont. promised pupils a world-class religious and academic education at an idyllic campus on the shores of the St. Lawrence River.

But a $225-million class action lawsuit alleges that pupils who lived and studied there got something much more damaging — a strict regime of arbitrary discipline, bizarre religious practices, and systemic abuse that left them “sexually, physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually traumatized.”

Grenville denied the accusations in the suit, which was launched in 2008 and certified in 2014. According to a statement of defence the college filed in 2010 “there is no truth whatsoever” to the allegations. “The representative plaintiffs were never, advertently or inadvertently, subjected to any conduct in the nature of physical or mental abuse,” the statement said.

In fact, the school’s defence stated, “Grenville enjoyed a good reputation over the years in Ontario and elsewhere for its academic prowess, extracurricular activities and caring approach toward the betterment of young people in its charge.”

In affidavits to support the class action, five former students described life at the school as being dominated by fear, humiliation and occasionally violence. Two more Grenville alumni interviewed by the Star described similarly traumatizing experiences.

The class action covers people who attended the school between 1973 and 1997, and according to a lawyer representing the plaintiffs, so far 182 former pupils have come forward expressing interest in making a claim.

Dan Michielsen enrolled at the college in 1985 when he was 15 years old. In an interview with the Star, he said that by the time he left four years later, he was “a wreck.”

He alleged that two weeks after arriving at Grenville a staff member woke him up by punching him in the groin, an apparent punishment for talking in his sleep. Michielsen said he was then dragged into the washroom and forced to clean it with a toothbrush. The staff member urinated on him as he scrubbed the floor, he said.

Michielsen said he was often berated by staff, who called him “disgusting,” “evil,” a “pig,” and a “mutt.”

Now 46, he says he has been left with debilitating self-esteem problems as a result of the alleged abuse. “After a while, I just accepted that I was a loser, that I was a s---, that I should just shut my mouth,” he said. “The doubt is always there.”

Another former student, Andrew Hale-Byrne, alleged in his affidavit that while at Grenville between 1988 and 1990, he was physically assaulted, punished with sleep deprivation and forced labour, and even subjected to an exorcism to “cure” his dyslexia.

In an interview, he said he left the college believing that he deserved to be abused and that he was “damned” to hell. “(Grenville) destroyed you to the point where you thought you couldn’t achieve in life, and you didn’t deserve to achieve,” he said. He likened life at the college to “waking up in a horror movie.”

Central to the lawsuit are allegations of close ties between Grenville faculty and a small religious sect founded in Massachusetts in the 1970s called the Community of Jesus. A 1981 Boston magazine story reported that former members of the Community described it as a cult that practiced physical and psychological abuse. The group’s leadership at the time denied the report.

According to the plaintiffs’ statement of claim, while the school presented itself as Anglican, the college’s staff engaged in a “systematic campaign . . . to promote and indoctrinate students in the teachings” of the Community of Jesus.

Fathers Charles Farnsworth and J. Alastair Haig, who co-founded Grenville,were members of the Community of Jesus, but in 1977 they were also ordained Anglican priests. Haig served as headmaster until 1983, at which point Farnsworth took over until 1997.

In affidavits for the suit, two former teachers said many staff were either members of the Community of Jesus or shared its values, but the college’s statement of defence denied the school promoted the sect’s beliefs to students.

In an interview with CTV’s investigative news program W5 that aired Feb. 6, Joan Childs, who was a teacher and administrator at Grenville for 32 years beginning in 1972, said one of the techniques Grenville staff imported from the Community of Jesus were so-called “light sessions.”

The former students who filed affidavits and spoke to the Star described these sessions as a form of ritual humiliation in which they were compelled to confess sins, real or imagined, while staff screamed abuse at them. The sessions could occur day or night, in front of a group or alone.

Childs told W5 the sessions “could get out of hand. It could get verbally abusive, it could get physically abusive at times,” she said.

“They were intensely frightening,” according to the affidavit sworn by Lisa Cavanaugh, who boarded at the school for two years, beginning in 1987. “The only way to make it stop was to cry and to tell them that I accepted that I had sinned.”

Cavanaugh, who was 14 when she entered the school, said that girls were often singled out during light sessions and “accused of being whores.”

The statement of claim alleges that other abuses included putting students “on discipline,” periods of excessive or abusive punishment during which children could be forbidden to speak or forced to perform tasks like scrubbing the kitchen with a toothbrush or cleaning out grease traps with their hands.

Richard Van Dusen, who was a boarding student for two years beginning in 1979 when he was 18, swore in his affidavit that when two teachers found out he bought a younger pupil a case of beer, they bent him over a chair and beat him with a wooden paddle. Afterward his underwear was “soaked through with blood.”

The Ontario Provincial Police investigated allegations of abuse at Grenville in 2007, but a spokesperson for the force told the Star that after consultation with the crown attorney, a decision was made not to press charges. The spokesperson couldn’t say why that decision was reached.

The two men in charge of the school during the alleged abuses are no longer living — Haig died in 2009, and Farnsworth passed away in March 2015.

Not everyone has bad memories of Grenville. Nine former students presented evidence in support of the school’s defence, denying there was abuse. David Webb, who attended the college from 1984 to 1987, said in an affidavit that staff exhibited “the kindest and most caring spirit imaginable” and pushed the students to achieve more they thought themselves capable of.

Donald Farnsworth, Father Charles Farnsworth’s son, conceded in an affidavit he filed as part of the suit that Grenville was strict, but asserted “that was one of its strengths.”

Donald attended grades nine to 13 at the college, and after graduating in 1976 went on to serve for two decades as a teacher and administrator at Grenville. In an interview, he said the school gave him “a fantastic education.”

Even though Grenville staff sometimes “disciplined me in a way that I found painful at the time,” he said, “I am very grateful for the growth that I experienced.”

With files from CTV’s W5.

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