Diocese investigates abuse claims

By on September 11, 2007

Former students of Grenville Christian College in Brockville, Ont., have complained to the bishop of Ontario about psychological and physical abuse at the school. The church denies that Grenville was an Anglican school, but the school’s Web site noted that worship in its Chapel of the Good Shepherd was in the “Anglican tradition.”

The Anglican diocese of Ontario has launched an investigation into allegations of psychological and physical abuse involving two of its priests, one of whom served as headmaster for 20 years at Grenville Christian College, a recently-closed private school in Brockville, Ont., in eastern Ontario.

George Bruce, the diocesan bishop, said he has received a number of written complaints from former Grenville students about two clergy, “one retired, and one (who went) on leave from the diocese to become headmaster of Grenville Christian College.”

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The church denies that Grenville was an Anglican school, but former students dispute this, citing the frequent attendance at school ceremonies by senior Anglican dignitaries, the former headmasters who were Anglican clergy and compulsory Anglican worship in the school’s chapel.

Bishop Bruce did not identify the Anglican priests under investigation but in an online message board, former students have named one of them as Rev. Charles Farnsworth, 71, who served as headmaster from the 1980s to 1997.

Bishop Bruce has asked the complainants to meet with him and the diocesan chancellor, Peter Swan, “to discuss the specifics of your allegation.” Under the diocese’s canons (church laws), Bishop Bruce will have to decide whether to inhibit or suspend the two clergy from their priestly duties while the investigation is pending.

The process also requires Bishop Bruce to notify the subject of the complaints “and allow a response if they wish.” The complainant is then informed of the response and if he or she is not satisfied with it, “the process may continue with a face-to-face meeting between the parties,” with advisors present, said Bishop Bruce in a message to the diocese. “My decision will then follow.”

Bishop Bruce also has the discretion to refer the matter to the diocesan court, which would see him removed from the process until the court has reached a decision.

The bishop vowed to “do my utmost to respect the dignity and privacy of all involved.”

Meanwhile, saying that it is “very committed to addressing all allegations of abuse, particularly where children are involved,” the Anglican Church of Canada has asked former Grenville students to file formal complaints with the diocese of Ontario, saying it has no authority or jurisdiction to deal with the matter.

“It takes courage and conviction to write what you have written and it is clear that you have experienced a great deal of pain,” Archdeacon Paul Feheley, principal secretary to the primate, Archbishop Fred Hiltz, wrote in a letter to one former student.

Earlier, the chair of the school’s board of directors, Canon Geoff Jackson, had said that Grenville “has never been” an institution of the church.

“There is no direct relationship at all between the Anglican Church of Canada and Grenville Christian College,” said Mr. Jackson, chair of the Grenville board. “The references to it being an Anglican school are not true.”

Although he and the school’s most recent headmaster, Rev. Gordon Mintz, are both Anglican, Mr. Jackson said they were in those positions in a private capacity. Mr. Jackson said he served the Grenville board as a volunteer, while Mr. Mintz was on a leave of absence as a priest in the Kingston-based diocese of Ontario.

Mr. Jackson was responding to a recent series of articles in the Globe and Mail that identified Grenville as an “elite Anglican private school” where students were subjected to cult-like practices that included being woken in the middle of the night and put into a dark room with bright lights, where they were taunted for being sinners.

Mr. Jackson and the school’s board of directors have issued a formal apology to the former students and said they are considering possible financial compensation for the victims.

[pullquote]”From a personal point of view, obviously I apologize for the fact that any student at the school – regardless of when they were there – suffered any kind of abuse,” Mr. Jackson said in an article published in the Brockville Recorder & Times.

Bishop Bruce also denied that Grenville – which educated day and boarding students from junior kindergarten through Grade 12 – was an Anglican school. In a pastoral statement issued to his diocese, Bishop Bruce said the diocese, “has at no time had any contractual or de facto responsibility or control over the operations of Grenville Christian College.” He added that the college’s board of directors ran it as a “non-profit charitable benevolent religious corporation.” He said, however, that the diocese “has occasionally, at the invitation of the college leadership, provided clergy (including bishops) to officiate at regular services of worship.”

The diocese’s announcement of an investigation came on the heels of complaints from former students that Anglican officials were ignoring their stories. A former student, Jennifer Reid, of Peterborough, Ont., said she had sent Bishop Bruce an e-mail with a link to a Web site where students were detailing alleged abuses over a 20-year period but no action was taken. The bishop said he had offered Ms. Reid “further discussion after the diocesan chancellor (legal adviser) ruled that the e-mails did not constitute a formal complaint of misconduct against Mr. Farnsworth.”

Mr. Mintz, meanwhile, said the stories of abuse at the school were “disconcerting” but unfounded. Allegations of abuse surfaced in the media after the Grenville board, citing financial difficulties and declining enrolment, announced July 31 that the school was not reopening in September. Former students, mostly those who attended the school in the 1980s, had been posting statements on a Web-based message board for a year alleging that they lived in fear at the school and had been psychologically damaged during their stay there. A common story was being subjected to intense “light sessions,” where students were confronted with unconfessed sins.

“I remember one horrible day, when the whole school was in silence, and then we all got called to the dining room. The girls remained in the dining room to pray for the boys while their dorms were searched one by one,” wrote a student identified as survivor1101. “It turned into a ‘light session,’ and the boys were sent to the chapel to one of their own. Eventually the entire school ended up in the light session in the dining room. People were called to stand along the edge of that platform and (were) berated and belittled before the whole school body.” Another student alleged a teacher had licked her neck and made sexual comments to her.

Joan Childs, who worked at Grenville for more than 30 years, later posted a public apology on the message board saying, “What was done to people at (Grenville) was very wrong. I was very wrong. And I am so sorry for all the hurt that was caused to each of you by me and by all of us in positions of leadership.”

Some former students posted open letters on the message board addressed to the Anglican Church of Canada seeking an investigation into the allegations. One asserted that the institution was an Anglican school. “We were forced to attend twice-daily Anglican worship services, using the Anglican Prayer Book, and conducted by the school’s headmasters, who actually became Anglican priests after the school was established.”

Mr. Jackson, who works as a senior development officer at the national office of the Anglican Church of Canada, said the accusations were a surprise. “These allegations are very, very disturbing,” he said in an interview. (Earlier, the Globe reported that the former diocesan bishop of Ontario, Peter Mason “said he had heard allegations from former staff members of cult practices at the school but had not been aware that it involved students.”)

Mr. Jackson acknowledged that Anglican prayer books were used for worship, but said “they’ve had times when they’ve used other forms of worship that aren’t Anglican.” But he said he understood why students thought it was an Anglican school.

The Anglican church flag reportedly flew at the school and bishops consecrated school buildings. The students have also cited that three of the college’s five headmasters were Anglican clergy – Mr. Farnsworth, his predecessor Rev. Al Haig, and Mr. Mintz.

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