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Brent Hawkes, right, and his lawyer Annamaria Enenajor head from provincial court in Kentville, N.S. on Jan. 31, 2017.

Andrew Vaughan/THE CANADIAN PRESS

A Nova Scotia judge has cleared Canada's most prominent gay pastor of sex-assault charges that hark back to a time when homosexuality was punishable by jail time and whippings.

Brent Hawkes, who officiated the world's first legal gay marriage and is considered an icon of Toronto's social-justice community, was facing charges of indecent assault and gross indecency for allegedly forcing oral sex on a teenager four decades ago. Both charges have since been wiped from the Criminal Code.

During the trial a man told a Kentville, N.S., courtroom that in the mid-1970s, Rev. Hawkes forced oral sex on him during a drunken party. The man was 16 years old at the time and Rev. Hawkes was a teacher in the Annapolis Valley.

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Provincial court Judge Alan Tufts handed down the not guilty verdict on Tuesday afternoon, saying he found significant inconsistencies in the testimonies of the witnesses.

Throughout the case, Rev. Hawkes has retained support from a wide swath of prominent Canadians, such as Olivia Chow and Bob Rae, as well as his congregation at the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), where he has continued to preach.

At a morning service last Sunday, following after a rendition of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah, the pastor, who has maintained his innocence, acknowledged the steadfast support of his crowded pews.

"As many of you know my verdict will be given this Tuesday," he said, his voice quivering. "And I want to thank you for your prayers and your best wishes and the amazing support that you have given me throughout this past year. Again, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you."

The pews erupted in ovation before he could pivot to his communal blessing.

For some supporters, the charges and the emotional testimony of the alleged victim tested their trust in a man who has guided the spiritual lives of thousands of Torontonians since he first took on the role of pastor in 1977.

"I've been back and forth on this whole thing," said Susan Gapka, a well-known advocate for trans people, the homeless and social-housing causes in the city, as well as a member of Rev. Hawkes's church. "Society has changed. We believe the accuser. We don't rush to judgment. These are charges and allegations and we have to trust that the process will work the way at should."

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Despite those uncertainties, she was the first to clap on Sunday. "For someone like me who has been [an] outsider and outcast even in the gay and lesbian community, I found him to be very welcoming," she said. "I've looked up to Brent a lot over the years as a friend and mentor, always will, and found these charges and this trial shocking. That he could be hauled up on something from 40 years ago, and on laws that are not even in the Criminal Code any more – that's what I find shocking."

Indeed the charges of gross indecency and indecent assault no longer appear in the Criminal Code. Both charges were long used to criminalize homosexuality until they were repealed in the '80s.

"The gross indecency law was the fundamental legal tool of homophobia in Canada from the 1890s on up to the mid-1980s," said University of Toronto criminology professor Mariana Valverde of an offence that, until the 1950s, was punishable by five years in prison and a whipping. "For any gay man of a certain age, this law was a tool of state oppression."

Rev. Hawkes moved to Toronto shortly after the alleged assault to take on the pastor role at the fledgling MCC, which had been launched to serve the spiritual needs of the homosexual community. The role soon forced him into the public sphere. When a protest group sought to whip up anti-gay sentiment following the sex assault and murder of 12-year-old Emanuel Jaques by three men in 1977, the young pastor stepped up to defend the community against the gathering storm of bigotry.

His criticism extended to the judge who took the popular position of admonishing the three men at trial and linking their deviance to homosexuality.

"People like you call yourselves gay," Justice Arthur Malone told one of the murderers. "That is a terrible perversion of a fine wholesome English word."

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To another he said, "It is your acknowledged tendency to seek out ever younger homosexual partners. I wonder how common that is among homosexuals. There are those who would seek legal protection for homosexuals in the Human Rights Code. You make me wonder if they are not misguided."

While the judge was certainly echoing popular sentiments at the time, Rev. Hawkes, then in his mid-twenties, wasn't about to let the crimes of a few taint the many.

He told The Globe and Mail that the judge's comments were characterized by "fury and disgust" and railed against Justice Maloney's conflating of homosexuality with pedophilia.

This was the crucible that would bring Rev. Brent Hawkes to the forefront of the city's civic life, where he would remain for the four decades as a crusader for gay and trans rights. Over ensuing years he would stage a hunger strike over the government's refusal to investigate police raids on four bath houses, endure a police officer's hay-makers, lead a protest that encircled the Ontario Legislature, don a bullet-proof vest to perform the world's first legal same-sex marriage and officiate former NDP leader Jack Layton's funeral.

"The church has been full this entire time," congregant Lou Laurens said on Sunday. "We know Brent. We know this is not him."

With a report from The Canadian Press

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