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Manitoba judge orders $5K restitution payment to victim in child pornography case

For the first time in Manitoba, a judge has ordered a man convicted of possessing child pornography to pay restitution to one of the victims.

Former teacher Steve Suomu was sentenced in November for possessing child pornography

The case marks the first time a Manitoba Crown has sought restitution in a child pornography case, and is one of only a few similar requests in Canada. (CBC)

For the first time in Manitoba, a judge has ordered a man convicted of possessing child pornography to pay restitution to one of the victims.

On Thursday, provincial court Judge Robert Heinrichs ordered Steve Suomu, a former elementary school teacher in Carman, Man., to pay $5,000 to a now-adult woman who was seen being abused as a child in images found in Suomu's possession.

Suomu was sentenced to two years less a day in jail in November 2017 after being convicted of possessing child pornography.

But Heinrichs waited several weeks to rule on whether Suomu should pay the restitution of $10,000 sought by the Crown for one of the victims.

In his ruling, Heinrichs said the spread of the images "cost [the victim] financially in a significant way."

He referenced the victim's impact statement, which described medical expenses and ongoing counselling throughout her life. In her statement the victim cited nightmares, flashbacks, panic attacks and difficulty sleeping because she knows the images continue to be shared.

"There has been and will be ongoing victimization," Heinrichs said.

Could encourage more claims

The case marks the first time a Manitoba Crown has sought restitution in a child pornography case and is one of only a few similar requests in Canada.

The ruling could help increase the number of similar claims in Canada, says a lawyer for the Canadian Centre for Child Protection.

"This is something that has not happened with these fulsome reasons before in this country. It's a win. It's great," said Monique St. Germain, a lawyer for the Canadian Centre for Child Protection.

"We'll see what happens from here. But I think this opens the door and certainly will start a national conversation on this issue."

In Canada, the Criminal Code requires restitution only be made in cases where the amount that should be paid out is "readily ascertainable," St. Germain said.

"Let's say somebody steals my TV and then that person is charged with theft under $5,000. The restitution order might be the cost of a replacement TV," she said, but it's more difficult to identify a monetary sum in child pornography cases.

While restitution in such cases is rare in Canada, it's common in the U.S., she said, where legislation has been passed to guide that process.

Dan Manning, Suomu's defence lawyer, questioned the restitution order.

"The problem that we have is, what's readily ascertainable about this? Why $5,000? It seems like an arbitrary number, almost," he said.

"Why not $10,000? Why not a million? Why not $10 million? In fact, I don't think any of the experts have concluded what the total damages are going to be."

Manning said Canada's Criminal Code doesn't include provisions for restitution in cases like child pornography convictions.

"Parliament or the legislature need to draft legislation that directly speaks to victims of child pornography," he said. "And that's what we need and that's not what we have currently at the time."

1 of a handful of cases in Canada

Only a handful of child pornography cases have involved restitution in Canada and all were driven by the same Ontario lawyer, St. Germain said. One of the successful claims was on behalf of the same victim to whom Suomu has been ordered to pay restitution. She was awarded $9,200 in the earlier case.

That woman, now in her 30s, was raped by her father when she was a child. Images of the abuse have been viewed and traded among child pornography offenders for decades.

St. Germain said Heinrich's ruling is significant because the judge acknowledged the victim's ongoing suffering caused by the continuing dissemination of the materials.

"[Child pornography is] the sort of crime that every time somebody accesses it, every time somebody new is possessing it, every time someone's distributing it, it's causing additional trauma to that victim," she said.

"And it means that they can't get out from behind the abuse that has occurred."

She said the ruling is good news for child pornography victims across Canada.

"We'll see. All changes that happen to laws or that happen to processes generally happen with one case," she said. "This is one case. And we'll see where it goes from here."

With files from Rignam Wangkhang and Kelly Malone