306-james-pardon

Convicted sexual predator Graham James, seen in 1989, was pardoned by the National Parole Board three years ago. ((Bill Becker/Canadian Press))

Graham James, the junior coach convicted of sexually abusing his players in a case that rocked the hockey world from house leagues to the NHL, has been pardoned by the National Parole Board, The Canadian Press has learned.

Though the pardon was granted three years ago, it comes to public light only now as a result of a previously unknown accuser contacting Winnipeg police.

A shocked Prime Minister's Office, notified of the pardon by The Canadian Press, called it a "deeply troubling and gravely disturbing" development that demands an explanation from the parole board.

James, now 58, pleaded guilty to sexual assault after two of his former teenaged players, including ex-NHLer Sheldon Kennedy, came forward with their stories of abuse at his hands from 1984 to 1995. James was sentenced to 3½ years in prison in 1997.

His current whereabouts are unknown.

Kennedy said news of the pardon awakened an old anger.

"I'm not forgiving of what is going on here," he told The Canadian Press on Sunday night.

"What angers me is that in a matter of 12 years he can go and do whatever he wants to do and he can bluff his employers because nobody knows what his background is because it's erased. That bothers me."

Kennedy added, however, that putting James back in the public spotlight could be a good thing.

"Graham's conviction brought with it a lot of change and his pardon and it coming to light is only going to bring more change," he said.

Latest accuser

The latest accuser, who says his encounter with James preceded Kennedy's by four years, is still deciding whether to follow former NHL star Theoren Fleury in lodging a formal complaint with police.

Fleury went to Winnipeg police in January after publishing a shocking tell-all memoir last autumn that detailed years of alleged abuse by James.

"I'm shocked and mystified. Imagine somebody who commits that kind of crime being pardoned," Fleury said in a statement issued Sunday.

"Obviously nobody was proud of the decision or it wouldn't have been a secret. I thought we had an open justice system. It's just more proof our society has a lot to learn about protecting the victims."

Fleury added that the pardon makes it "even tougher" for those who have been abused to talk about what they've been through.

The latest accuser spoke to CP on condition he not be identified. He was never coached by James but said he was targeted in 1979-80 as a player with prospects. Now a lawyer, the man said he learned of James's possible pardon through recent discussions with Winnipeg police.

The Canadian Press subsequently discovered that James was pardoned on Jan. 8, 2007. The pardon was signed off by Pierre Dion, a full-time member of the Appeal Division of the National Parole Board who also has a clinical psychology practice in Ottawa with court experience in child protection cases.

Dion was appointed by the Liberals and re-appointed by the Conservatives. He could not immediately be reached for comment.

What the pardon does

A pardon does not erase a person's criminal record, but it means the information is kept in a separate file and doesn't show up on checks at the Canadian Police Information Centre, a key law-enforcement database used by the RCMP and other police forces.

In the case of someone convicted of serious sex offences, the criminal record is kept apart from others, but the name is flagged in the CPIC system. According to the parole board, that means details of the person's conviction would be discovered by a check that takes place if they apply to work with children, the disabled or other vulnerable people.

James's latest accuser is aware of that safeguard through his own volunteer work coaching his son's hockey teams, but still finds the pardon inexplicable.

"To say that the parole board process has been abused would be a grotesque understatement," he said in an interview.

"Here you have an incredibly high-profile pedophile — and there's no other word to use to describe him — who clearly has not been able to take responsibility or show any accountability for his actions."

The man said he considers the mere act of seeking a pardon as an illustration of James's absence of remorse. That it was granted, he said, is like a fresh wound.

"I can't explain in words the extent to which this just cuts right to the heart of the pain again, in terms of who he is and what he did."

In the interview with The Canadian Press, James's latest accuser did not specify his allegations beyond indicating they were sexual in nature and made him contemplate suicide. Since he has not filed a formal police complaint, no new charges are connected to his allegations and nothing has been tried in a court.

PMO comment

Dimitri Soudas, a spokesman for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, while noting the independence of the parole board, expressed shock that the government is learning of the pardon only three years after the fact.

"The prime minister has asked for explanation on how the National Parole Board can pardon someone who committed such horrific crimes that remain shocking to all Canadians," he said.

The ruling, he said, was made "without our government's consent or knowledge.

"The actions of this convicted sex offender shocked the conscience of a nation — one where the bond of trust between coaches and players in our national game is sacred," Soudas said.

Harper, he added, has asked Public Safety Minister Vic Toews "to propose reforms that will ensure that the National Parole Board always and unequivocally puts the public's safety first."

A pardon can make it easier for a convict to get a job or travel abroad. The number of applications for pardons has surged in recent years.

Parole board comment

Under Canadian human rights law, a person cannot be denied access to services or employment with a federal agency due to a pardoned conviction.

Because he was convicted of an indictable, or more serious, offence, James had to wait five years after the end of his sentence — as opposed to three — before applying for a pardon. In addition to ensuring he had no further convictions, the parole board would have been obliged to investigate James's behaviour to ensure he was of "good conduct" during that time.

In 2006-07, the parole board issued 7,672 pardons to people convicted of lesser offences, granted another 7,076 to people with more serious convictions, including James, and denied just 103 applications.

Parole board chairman Harvey Cenaiko was unavailable for comment.

Board spokeswoman Caroline Douglas said the pardons process does not generally take into account the nature of the crime — even those that the public finds particularly upsetting.

Only a small segment of offenders, including those convicted of murder or branded dangerous offenders, are barred from being pardoned.

"We cannot discriminate based on the crime committed," Douglas said. "Very few people are ineligible for a pardon. Everyone else is eligible no matter their crime. We have to follow the law."

The board's latest planning report says pardons are beneficial not only to the individuals who earn them, but to society in general.

"Pardons encourage commitments to lead law-abiding lives, help people secure jobs and reduce reliance on social programs."

Can be revoked

A pardon can be revoked if the person is later convicted of another crime, or the parole board finds the person is no longer of good conduct. Discovering the person lied or concealed relevant information at the time of the application can also result in a pardon being cancelled.

James was a savvy, smooth-talking rising star in the Prairie coaching ranks of junior hockey when he committed the crimes for which he's been pardoned.

In 1983, as a scout for the Winnipeg Warriors of the Western Hockey League, James recruited Fleury and Kennedy, both of whom would go on to NHL careers. He became head coach of the WHL's Moose Jaw Warriors the following year. By 1986, as head coach of the Swift Current Broncos, James re-acquired Kennedy in a trade.

Fleury's autobiography, Playing With Fire, alleges that James began molesting him at age 14, and describes one occasion when James drove Kennedy and Fleury to Disneyland for a vacation, allegedly assaulting the pair on alternate days.

But it wasn't until more than a decade later in 1996 — when James was coach, GM and part-owner of the WHL's Calgary Hitmen — that he was charged with two counts of sexual assault involving hundreds of incidents.

The other victim besides Kennedy has never been publicly named.

Fleury, although widely rumoured to have been abused, was not one of the complainants at the time.

James pleaded guilty. After his 3½-year sentence was up in 2000, the Canadian Hockey Association barred him from coaching for life.

Yet from 2001 to 2003, James coached hockey in Spain, including the national team — with his Spanish employers fully aware of his Canadian police record.

He has not been heard from since Fleury came forward with his own allegations of abuse. There have been reports that James is living in the Montreal area, possibly under a new name. He could not be reached for comment.