Ewan Whyte’s most recent book is Shifting Paradigms: Essays on Art and Culture.
On Nov. 16, 2023, the 16-year class-action lawsuit against Grenville Christian College finally came to a close. As a former student, I could hardly believe it. The infamous boarding school, which was located just outside Brockville, Ont., and its close affiliate, the Massachusetts-based Community of Jesus, had seemed too powerful to defeat. Its leaders had used incredible deceit and their pull with powerful and wealthy donors to silence students for decades. The film producer Sir Arthur Chetwynd was a booster. Trevor Eyton, the Ontario businessman and senator, was also a strong supporter, as were three successive lieutenant-governors of Ontario, Pauline McGibbon, John Black Aird and Lincoln Alexander, who all sat on the school’s board. Another former lieutenant-governor, Hal Jackman, even gave a commencement speech at Grenville. These dignitaries would have been shocked if they knew what happened to the school’s students and how they were the unwitting enablers of a mind-control cult that did horrific things to children in the name of God.
Many of its former students – some of whom were drawn from the children of the province’s elite – claimed varying levels of shocking maltreatment at the hands of the school’s administration and staff, including severe corporal punishment, constant verbal and emotional abuse, sexual harassment and sexual abuse, yelling, scapegoating, shunning, sleep deprivation, forced manual labour and isolation. As a student there I was assaulted, isolated, thrown down a flight of stairs, repeatedly kicked, deprived of food and sleep, locked in walk-in freezers, forced to sleep in soiled bedding for a week, sexually harassed and witnessed sexual assault on children. (When I complained about the assaults to adult staff, I was beaten with a two-by-four.) It comes as no surprise that the effects of the abuse followed the students into adulthood.
“The list of suicides of former students is very long and heartbreaking,” Andrew Hale-Byrne, one of the representative plaintiffs for the students, said after the final hearing.
I spent three long years at Grenville in the 1980s, during Grades 7, 8 and 9. Before that, I was a forced child member of the Community of Jesus. Both of my parents were members of this “church,” which was founded in Massachusetts in 1970. It is by far the most extreme of the three original surviving Covenant Communities from the charismatic renewal in the United States, which started in the early 1960s and picked up steam as a backward-looking reaction to the late-1960s flower-power movement. The founders of the Community, Cay Andersen and Judy Sorensen, were middle-aged housewives who spent several extended stays at a German sect called the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary, from which they borrowed much of its fire-and-brimstone theology and punitive mind-control techniques, called “light sessions.” Ms. Andersen and Ms. Sorensen exported their own variation of this technique to Grenville, where they convinced staff to become members of the Community of Jesus and live by its extreme lifestyle. This included taking vows of obedience for life.
I endured these light sessions many times, more times than I can remember. A student would suddenly find themselves surrounded by other adult staff members. They would be aggressively confronted with a list of perceived spiritual faults or personality flaws. Often they seemed entirely random. The target would then be grilled, aggressively and relentlessly, until they broke down psychologically under the threat of violence, in sessions that could last for hours. Complete emotional breakdown was not uncommon. The subject would then be “love-bombed” by the same people who had just so cruelly confronted them. They were told that they had undergone a worthy spiritual ordeal in pursuit of a Christian life. Then it would start all over again.
The school closed in 2007, and its sins were exposed by this very newspaper shortly thereafter. Mr. Hale-Byrne soon launched a civil class-action lawsuit against the school and the estates of two of its late headmasters. The lawsuit only finally went to trial in 2019.
I was not the only former student who came to watch the trial unfold. Others came from across Canada and the U.S., filling the seats of the courtroom. Some came to hear former students finally detail the horrors of what they had lived through but had never been able to say out loud. They – we – wanted the world to know what we experienced all those years ago. I remember that when a clinical psychologist and expert witness acknowledged the impact of abuse on the lives of so many of Grenville’s former students in her testimony, many of the former students in the packed courtroom burst into tears. Several had to leave the courtroom, overcome with emotion. It was a moment when, for the first time, someone in a position of authority acknowledged what we went through.
Justice Janet Leiper issued her decision on Feb. 23, 2020, concluding that “the evidence of maltreatment and the varieties of abuse perpetrated on students’ bodies and minds in the name of the [Community of Jesus] values of submission and obedience was class-wide and decades-wide.” It was, as Margaret Granger, one of the representative plaintiffs, put it to me, “a precedent-setting case, and the first historical abuse case to win at trial in Canada.” (The judge’s decision was appealed by the defendants, but upheld in 2021.)
The 70-page ruling also explained the school’s financial and spiritual involvement with the Community of Jesus. Donald Farnsworth, the son of long-standing Grenville headmaster Charles Farnsworth, testified that the school gave about $100,000 every year to the Community, and had even purchased a house inside its compound. Ms. Andersen and Ms. Sorensen sat on the board of the school.
The Superior Court of Justice of Ontario ordered that $10,875,000 be paid in damages. The money for each student after 16 years of legal battles was negligible; after subtracted amounts, the total is $6,628,781 divided between roughly 1,350 students. But we hadn’t pursued justice for the money. We’d wanted to be heard.
The final court hearing, in which the case management judge approved the proposed settlement negotiated between the plaintiffs’ legal team and the insurance companies representing the shuttered school, was online and brief. All four of the representative plaintiffs were present: Mr. Hale-Byrne and Ms. Granger were joined by Lisa Cavanaugh and Richard van Dusen. About 30 former students were allowed to listen on Zoom. The judge quickly approved the agreement between representatives of the former students and the lawyers for the school.
The prospects for many school alumni are grim, with an alarming incidence of suicide, addiction and lifelong mental-health issues, all hallmarks of severe trauma. Still, the closure we were offered on Nov. 16 was a victory.
“This settlement is a huge relief, and verifies and validates everything I had been trying to tell my family and friends for decades about how the school treated us without our parents’ knowledge or consent,” Liz Goldwyn, who was a student in the 1980s, told me afterward.
Despite the trial, and hours of testimony from former students and staff, many enablers I have confronted have either been dismissive, in complete denial, or have refused to acknowledge anything happened at Grenville. I believe the highly addictive nature of the light sessions has convinced many people that they had participated in something truly spiritual. I do not agree – nor do many of the plaintiffs who won the suit against Grenville.
While it has lost a lot of influence, the Community of Jesus remains in operation, obfuscating its links to Grenville and the successful class-action suit. To the children still trapped inside, as I once was: We have not forgotten you.