Mar 7, 2020

Christian College ruling 'validating': Student

The former Grenville Christian College. (FILE PHOTO) SUNMEDIA
Wayne Lowrie
Brockville Recorder and Times
March 5, 2020

A former Grenville Christian College student, who successfully sued the school, says she couldn’t be more pleased by the judge’s decision.

“It was very validating,” Lisa Cavanaugh said of Justice Janet Leiper’s ruling that found all of the former students to be “credible and reliable” witnesses.

“Our lawyers did a fantastic job in telling our story,” Cavanaugh said.

Cavanaugh was one of five former students who waged a 12-year legal battle against the now defunct Christian school and the estates of its two former headmasters.

Leiper’s decision last month that upheld the former students’ class-action suit complaining of physical abuse, demeaning discipline and humiliation was overwhelming, Cavanaugh said.

The legal journey, which started in late 2007, was long and gruelling but ultimately worth it, she said.

“It was important to get the truth out there because there were students who were deeply affected by their time at GCC,” Cavanaugh said. “It was important for people to understand that Grenville was not necessarily as they portrayed themselves.”

In her judgment, Leiper said the school created an “abusive, authoritarian and rigid culture” that exploited and controlled the young students.

“I have concluded that the evidence of maltreatment and the varieties of abuse perpetrated on students’ bodies and minds in the name of COJ (Community of Jesus) values of submission and obedience was class-wide and decades-wide,” Leiper said.

During 22 days of hearings this fall and early winter, Leiper, of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, heard the former students’ harrowing testimony of corporal punishment with a wooden paddle, school-wide public humiliation sessions to shame students for such infractions as “being too haughty” or “smiling too much” and degrading work assignments.

As disciplinary measures, students were forced to clean floors with toothbrushes, pick up leaves on their hands and knees under the supervision of a younger student, clean out a dumpster of garbage and a dead animal carcass and cut the grass using small scissors, the court was told.

Cavanaugh was living with her mother in Maitland when she attended GCC from 1984-89, first as a day student in Grades 6, 7 and 8, then as a boarding student for Grades 9 and 10.

Now married and an IT professional in Ottawa, Cavanaugh didn’t want to discuss her time at the Christian college because GCC lawyers have indicated that they might appeal Leiper’s decision. But she said her time there was obviously traumatic or she wouldn’t have spent the last 12 years pursuing justice.

In court, Cavanaugh testified about the all-school assemblies at which students were criticized in front of their peers. She told of staff dorm raids in which girls’ underwear drawers were searched for underwear that wasn’t “regulation”; of a bedtime lecture by Charles Farnsworth in which the headmaster scolded the girls for being “bitches in heat” and suggested that they would be responsible for attacks by boys if they didn’t dress appropriately.

In her judgment, Leiper included Cavanaugh’s testimony of the school’s atmosphere.

“You could walk through the hallways at any given time and be corrected for not smiling enough, bringing down the spirit of the school. You could be chastised for the way you walked, if your kilt swayed too much that would not be a good idea. Something even as simple as crossing your legs, if you were sitting in a chair. On the edge of your chair and you crossed your legs, you could be chastised for that because the boys would be able to see the slip from the bottom of the chair.”

Leiper ruled that the college and the estates of two deceased former headmasters will have to pay yet-to-be-determined punitive damages. She ordered the two parties to go before a case management judge to discuss a settlement. If they are unable to agree she will consider written submissions on costs after Mar. 21.

Cavanaugh said money is obviously a factor in the class-action suit, but it never was the students’ true goal.

“Our goal was to have people acknowledged and to be allowed to heal,” she said. “And to have people admit to their role. But, unfortunately, they refused.”

Grenville Christian College, just east of Brockville, opened in 1969 as Berean Christian School to offer elementary and secondary education to boys and girls.

The complaints of the former students start in 1973 when the school adopted new programing from an American Christian community called the Community of Jesus, or COJ.

The school closed in 2007.

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