‘I became the very thing I hated most,’ Snook says
Warning: The story contains graphic material that some readers may find disturbing
Former Saint John councillor Donnie Snook says he became the very thing he hated most — a child molester.
Snook made the comment on Friday, the second day of his sentencing hearing on 46 sex abuse charges.
He apologized to his 17 young male victims and the community at large.
He said he's "ashamed" of his actions, takes full responsibility for the wrong choices he made, and wishes he could turn back time.
Snook, 41, pleaded guilty in May to the charges, which include sexual assault, sexually touching a minor while in a position of trust, making child pornography and extortion.
The offences date back to 2001 and involve boys as young as five years old.
The provincial courtroom heard that Snook was abused himself by a family friend at the age of 10, but Snook said he wasn't going to blame anyone else for the things he chose to do.
He said he hopes the truth can, at least, bring some peace to his victims and their families, and that they can somehow, in time, forgive him.
Outbursts in courtroom
"Cry me a river," said one man at the back of the courtroom.
"You don't deserve it," shouted another man, jumping to his feet. "Seventeen kids," he said, before being escorted out of the courtroom by at least three sheriffs.
Another man slumped over, sobbing, while a woman beside him tried to comfort him.
Snook, who was fighting back tears and taking long pauses to compose himself as he addressed the courtroom, said he realizes it won't be possible for many people to forgive him.
But he still wanted to say he is sorry to God, his family, friends, colleagues, the community, and mostly, his victims and their families.
He betrayed their trust and failed them, he said.
"It's too late now, but I know I had absolutely no right to put myself in a position of trust," without dealing with his abuse, said Snook.
"I became the very thing I hated most — a person who sexually molests children," he said, adding he doesn't understand how that could happen.
"If anyone should have known better, it was me."
The abuse "absolutely changed forever who I was," he said. It left him struggling with constant feelings of fear, shame, guilt, self-hatred and depression, he said.
"I never wanted to be this way."
Snook urged other victims of abuse to speak up and reach out for help, saying his crimes could have been prevented, but he didn't have the "courage" to come forward.
He said it was selfish of him and that it spiraled out of control.
Snook also said that while what he did was wrong, he hopes people don’t think everything he did was for the wrong motive.
"My struggle with pedophilia does not define the totality of who I was in the community at all times," he said.
Crown recommends 21-year sentence
Crown prosecutor Karen Lee Lamrock recommended Snook be sentenced to 21 years in prison, with no eligibility for parole until he has served at least half of his sentence or 10 years, whichever is less.
"Until sentences are long enough [that] the benefit is not worth the risk, then these types of crimes are going to continue," she told reporters outside the courtroom.
Lamrock said she initially tried to calculate a recommended sentence based on the individual victims, but came up with a total of more than 75 years.
Some of the aggravating factors she considered included the number of victims, which she compared to the size of a kindergarten class, as well as the period of time the abuse continued — about 13 years.
Lamrock also stressed Snook's position of trust as an aggravating factor. He had access to victims and the trust of parents because of his position as a youth ministry leader, she said.
The fact he abused a foster child, placed in his care by the Department of Social Development, was also striking, said Lamrock.
Snook also abused a number of children who were visiting one of his foster children. So he used that child to gain access to victims, she said.
Snook also had unprotected sex with the victims, induced group sexual activities, permitted them to use alcohol and drugs, and used money as an incentive.
The Crown noted his behaviour increased in frequency, severity and aggressiveness over time, up to and including the extortion charge, where Snook threatened to post naked images of a boy on the internet if he refused to continue to co-operate.
High end of moderate risk level to re-offend
A pre-sentence report found Snook is "clearly a pedophile," who is at the high end of the moderate risk level to re-offend, said Lamrock.
Snook is optimistic about treatment and rehabilitation, she said.
But the "driving factor " behind his behaviour "appears to be his deviant sexual interest in children," which is "not likely to go away," according to psychologist and associate University of New Brunswick professor Mary Ann Campbell, who conducted the assessment.
It is "part of his sexual orientation," she said, after spending about 12 hours interviewing Snook and conducting psychological tests. However, Campbell did suggest Snook can learn to "manage" it with treatment.
Campbell, who is an expert in risk assessment and behaviour, also addressed whether Snook being abused as a child may have contributed to his crimes.
She said only three to 12 per cent of abuse victims go on to sexually offend as adults. Their risk is higher if they "suffer in silence" and don't disclose the abuse, or if they do tell someone and aren't believed, she said.
Campbell also found Snook is capable of feeling empathy, but didn't at the time he was abusing his victims.
She said he tended to regret his behaviour after the fact, but it wasn't strong enough to stop him.
Some of the mitigating factors, the Crown said, are that Snook pleaded guilty and co-operated with police. She said investigators would not have known about a number of the victims if Snook hadn't told them. There were also several victims police knew about, but who likely wouldn't have given statements if Snook hadn't told first, she said.
Lamrock read two victim impact statements aloud in court, including one from a victim known only as H.I., who had reported being abused by Snook back in 2007, but no charges were laid at that time.
He says he was naive. "I actually thought something was going to be done about this." He questions how many others were affected by what he says "could have been stopped almost a decade ago."
H.I. says this experience will stay with him forever. "It makes you question your worth … deep down to your foundation as a person."
It's hard to live life like a regular teenager after an adult he trusted betrayed him "like that," he said, describing his feelings as a "combustible mixture of hatred, betrayal and self-pity."
H.I. says he's happy it's finally over and hopes that youth in the area will be able to find a role model worthy of the respect Snook once had.
Several people in the courtroom were shaking their heads and wiping away tears as the statement was being read.
Asked outside the courtroom why no charges were laid in 2007, the Crown said: "If you’re asking me my opinion, what should have been done, or could have been done, or actions that should have been taken, I’m not in a position to make those types of comments."
Lamrock also read aloud in court a statement from the mother of a victim known as B.C., a 12-year-old boy with cognitive difficulties.
She says she feels like "the worst mother in the world" for not being able to protect her son.
The boy doesn't talk much, has had a hard time making friends, and isolated himself, she said. But once he met Snook, she saw a change in him. He became the happy boy she always wanted.
She says she feels betrayed and angry that her son's innocence was taken away for Snook's "pleasurable moments."
She has trouble sleeping, imagining all the "horrible" things Snook has done.
Only three of the 17 victims and seven parents submitted victim impact statements, said the Crown.
The two victims who were abused the longest — A.B. for seven years and L.M. for five years — did not give statements, she said, adding most of the victims are not involved in any counselling.
Lamrock also noted that even the ones who submitted statements know how they feel today, but most are still children and it's difficult to predict what the long-term impacts will be.
Defence recommends 12-year sentence
The defence recommended a sentence of 12 years in prison and asked that Snook be given one-and-a-half credit for the nearly eight months he has already spent in custody.
Dennis Boyle said Snook is psychologically a good candidate for rehabilitation and that the rate of re-offending among convicted sex offenders involving children is "fairly low," compared to other criminal behaviour.
Snook's parents, who are both 77, want to see him out of jail before they die, he said.
Boyle said Snook immediately admitted to him he was guilty of the initial eight charges against him and that he urged him to come clean if there were any more.
Snook told him, "There's a lot more," and he told police about all of it, said Boyle, including his offences in his native Newfoundland where he's also facing four charges dating back to the 1990s.
This is "not the tip of the iceberg," said Boyle. "It's the entire iceberg."
If anything else comes up, he said, it will simply be "an error of memory over time."
Boyle suggested Snook's problems stemmed from the abuse he suffered as a child. He presented to the court a letter Snook wrote to a Christian organization in California when he was 18 or 19.
In the letter, Snook said he felt a calling to join the ministry, but found himself "turned on" by children. He questioned whether the thoughts were planted in his head by Satan in a bid to keep him from the "good work his ministry could do."
Snook never mailed the letter, said Boyle. His father discovered it among some boxes in the family home after his arrest.
Snook went on to become ordained and was given a mission on the west coast of Newfoundland, where he is scheduled to enter pleas on Oct. 29 on two counts of sexual assault and two counts of sexual interference.
The Crown questioned the legitimacy of the letter and argued, if anything, it shows Snook knew he was a danger to children since he was in his late teens, but didn't do anything to stop it, she said.
2 sides of Snook
Boyle suggested Snook's problems escalated when one of his foster children he sought to adopt committed suicide. He was grief-stricken and turned to his addiction, much like an alcoholic would turn to a bottle, said Boyle.
He said Snook also became "trapped in his own behaviour."
The court heard earlier that it was known in some circles that if boys did things for Snook, they got money. Boyle said people were calling Snook, expecting money. "Now he's the one being extorted."
Boyle stressed to the judge the two sides to Snook, noting he read Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde after taking Snook on as a client to "get a different view of the whole thing."
There's the "Good Guy Donnie" everybody liked, who is charming, well-spoken, engaging and helpful, he said. But there is also the man who abused children.
Boyle said many people are disappointed and hurt by Snook's actions, but he's surprised by the number of people who seem to realize "he's sick" and "needs help."
Provincial court Judge Alfred Brien has reserved sentencing until Oct. 10. He wants time to consider all of the information presented.
It's possible the four charges from Newfoundland could be transferred here, the Crown said, but only if it does not cause undue delay or distress, or interfere in any way with administration of justice in New Brunswick.
Snook remains in custody.
Meanwhile, Boyle said Snook has also reported to police in Newfoundland the alleged abuse he suffered as a child, and that officers came to New Brunswick to interview him.
"I think charges are at least afoot, whether they’ve been laid or not," said Boyle.