Graham James holds his award in Toronto, June 8, 1989, after being named The Hockey News man of the year. ((Bill Becker/Canadian Press))

Amid growing outrage that former hockey coach Graham James was pardoned for molesting two teens, the National Parole Board issued an explanation Monday that it cannot refuse a pardon based on the nature of a crime.

James, now 58, pleaded guilty to sexual assault after Sheldon Kennedy, who went on to play in the NHL, and a second unnamed player came forward with the story of the sexual abuse they suffered when James coached their Western Hockey League teams from 1984 to 1995.

The National Parole Board granted James a pardon in 2007 after he completed a 3½-year prison sentence. But the news only came to light on Sunday in a report by The Canadian Press after a previously unknown accuser contacted Winnipeg police.

"It was a kind of slap in the face and really a misunderstanding by the powers-that-be [of] the damage that abuse has on someone," Kennedy told CBC News Monday.

The National Parole Board cannot comment on specific cases, but issued a statement explaining the strict criteria for pardons by which its members are bound.

Pardon process treats offences the same

Any criminal, except those who are sentenced to a life or indeterminate sentence, can apply for a pardon after completing their full terms and a waiting period of three or five years. An applicant must demonstrate that he or she has "been of good conduct" and has not been convicted of other offences.

"The Criminal Records Act does not differentiate pardon applicants by the type of offence they have committed, nor does it allow the board to refuse to grant a person a pardon based on the nature of their crime," said the statement by Caroline Douglas, a spokeswoman for the board.

'These things should not just be rubber-stamped.' —Vic Toews, public safety minister

"A pardon is not meant to erase or excuse a criminal act. A pardon means that the record of the conviction is kept separate and apart from other criminal records."

That means the conviction doesn't show up on checks at the Canadian Police Information Centre, a database used by the RCMP and other police.

However, people pardoned for sexual offences are still flagged in the system and should show up in a check if they apply to work in positions of trust with children or other vulnerable people, Douglas said.


Ex-NHL player Sheldon Kennedy said Graham James's pardon was a "slap in the face" to victims. ((Andree Lau/CBC))

Kennedy is not convinced by the safeguards: "I know how much of a serial predator [James] is. He can walk into an employment opportunity and he can befriend an employer who has children and next thing you know he is looking after the kids."

James was one of 14,748 Canadians given a pardon in 2006-07, while 103 people were refused, according to government records.

In light of that pardons process, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said the federal government will look at giving the National Parole Board more "direction."

"These things should not just be rubber-stamped," Toews said Monday. "There may have to be more consideration by the board given to the particular type of offence, and at the present time the board is not entitled to differentiate between offences."

The government could decide to ban sex criminals from receiving pardons or lengthen the waiting time before applying, Toews suggested.

Victims should be informed

Kennedy said it's important for abuse victims to be notified of developments like the pardon.

"I know that's a huge fear of most people that are going to press charges against their abuser or even are in the healing processes, that this person is going to get them again," he said.

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Theoren Fleury, Kennedy's former teammate in junior hockey as well as on the Calgary Flames, filed a formal complaint with police in January after publishing his autobiography that included details of years of alleged abuse by James.

"I feel probably like most of the country, that we're disappointed and that you know, we now I guess are questioning the system and the safety of our children," Fleury said about the pardon.

"The flaw in the system is that we don't really have control as to where we know or how we know or where we know where these guys are at. And that they're able to kind of roam free."

When asked what the move says about victims' rights in Canada, Fleury answered: "That there is none? That something has to change and I hope that it does."

With files from The Canadian Press