Nfld. & Labrador·Analysis

Why the Big Bite Pizza victims cannot be named, even if they want to be

CBC reporter Ryan Cooke takes you behind the scenes on his journey to tell the story of two girls exploited at Big Bite Pizza, and why CBC can never tell you their names.

Publication bans for child pornography cases have never been struck down

The CBC's Ryan Cooke conducted interviews over a span of several weeks in the winter of 2017 for a story that would come to air more than a year later, with names altered and faces left out. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

We knew we were going to lose, but I had to go to court to see it for myself.

It had been 13 months since the day I opened a Facebook inbox message and was blown away.

Two women had come forward and shared their stories of childhood sexual exploitation in downtown St. John's.

They spoke on a condition — that CBC News broadcast their names and their faces and put their full life story out there.

Because of publication bans on the criminal cases related to their experiences, we had to go to court to meet those conditions.

It was a miserable morning in December when we finally made it to a courtroom for a decision.

I was told the day before that we were going to lose, but I had to be there.

An unprecedented move

I don't blame Supreme Court Justice Rosalie McGrath, and you shouldn't either.

After all, we had asked her to do something that had never been done before — overturn a publication ban in a child pornography case to identify two of the six victims.

Something similar played out in Nova Scotia in 2014.

Rehtaeh Parsons was a young girl who was allegedly raped and photographed three years earlier. That photo circulated through her school, and her family says she killed herself because of the bullying she faced.

What happened to Rehtaeh Parsons went viral.

Everyone knew the story. Everyone knew her name.

But when the case eventually made its way to court in 2014, nobody was allowed to say it out loud.

The story of Rehtaeh Parsons had sparked public outrage long before it made it to the courts, meaning people knew her name before a publication ban took effect. (Instagram)

All victims in crimes of a sexual nature are protected by a publication ban, meaning no media outlet is allowed to do anything that would give a person who knows the victim a reasonable chance to identify them.

And let's be clear — that's a great law. It offers protection for victims who do not want disgusting acts forever tied to their names.

But in some instances, it is also a very stubborn and rigid law.

In the Parsons case, the family and several media outlets argued it was in the best interest of the public to know Rehtaeh's name.

It dragged on for months.

Some outlets began ignoring the ban, and it reached a point where the province's attorney general promised not to prosecute anyone who violated it unless they disparaged Parsons in some way.

But the ban could not be struck down.

The publication ban presented a hurdle, but everyone involved felt the story had to move forward. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

In the case we encountered, these women felt it was time they took control of their stories. They felt they could make an impact on the lives of young girls in similar situations if they could show them there is life after childhood exploitation.

They believed it was not just for their own well-being, but in the best interest of the public if their names were released from under the blanket of the ban.

But Justice McGrath, much like the judge in the Parsons case, made it clear — the law does not leave any room for discretion. Without a precedent to follow, the ban in the Big Bite Pizza case cannot be dropped.

Another ban was partially lifted

Where things got muddy was with the case of the woman we called Phoebe Walker and her ties to another criminal case.

As we reported earlier this week, she was also a victim of Shawn Newman, a man who pimped out two underage girls.

When Walker was 14, police discovered she was being sold for sex by the 33-year-old man.

Some of these encounters happened on the steps of the very same courthouse where he was eventually tried and sentenced — the same place the publication ban challenge was heard.

This interview with Phoebe on the steps of St. John the Baptist Anglican Cathedral was not usable after a Supreme Court justice upheld a publication ban. This church was the scene of a horrific experience for her at a young age. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

Since they were separate cases, the publication bans were also separate.

In a strange twist, the judge ruled we could identify Walker if we were talking about Shawn Newman, but not if we were talking about her role at Big Bite Pizza.

There are crimes where the judge may issue a publication ban. These can be challenged and overturned. 

There are other crimes, like creating child pornography, where a judge must order a ban. In a limited number of challenges, these have been non-negotiable.

So if this story was limited to just the Shawn Newman case, I could have revealed Phoebe's true identity. But then I wouldn't be able to report on her connection to Big Bite Pizza without violating the ban.

What do we take from this?

Behind the scenes, there was plenty of frustration since the first day we spoke to these women in November 2016.

They had hoped you could see their faces, so they could take control of their stories. Unfortunately, that was not possible.

Hopefully the story has still made a strong impact, and any girls living through a similar hell will see this and realize somebody cares about your story. There will always be people who want to lend you a helping hand.

We identified this woman as Phoebe Walker. Despite how much she wanted to use her real name, she was not legally allowed. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

To the readers, viewers and listeners —  try to place yourself in the shoes of these two women, having gone through unspeakable horrors with little control, only to be told 12 years later you still cannot control your own story.

No matter what that makes you feel — frustration, anger or sadness — I hope it brings compassion.

And a recognition that this level of depravity can happen anywhere. It has happened here. And it can happen again.

About the Author

Ryan Cooke works for CBC out of its bureau in St. John's.