Exorcisms, violent discipline and other abuse alleged by former students of private Sask. Christian school
CBC News has learned police, Crown investigating complaints from 18 Christian Centre Academy students
Coy Nolin and his mother say they had no idea the four people in their living room were about to conduct a violent exorcism to cast out Coy's "gay demons."
Coy says that three days earlier, in an office at Saskatoon's Christian Centre Academy, the school's director had interrogated him for several hours after informants told the director Coy is gay. Coy, who was 16 years old at the time, says the director called him "evil" and "an abomination."
Coy was suspended and told they would try to "cure" him.
"He told me I'd have to take it like a man," Coy said.
Coy and his mother, Carilyn, say they agreed to the home visit in May 2004 assuming they would discuss the suspension.
But almost immediately after they walked into the house, the four officials from the school and adjoining Saskatoon Christian Centre church placed their hands on Coy. They began yelling, grunting and making other unintelligible sounds known as "speaking in tongues."
"I was no longer in control. I was pushed aside," Carilyn said.
After more than an hour, with Carilyn crying in the corner of the room, they stopped.
Coy says the director then grabbed his large wooden paddle, bent Coy over his lap and spanked him hard enough to leave him bruised and limping.
"That was one of the worst days of my life. Even now, just thinking about it, I go numb," Coy said.
"This was abuse. This was a hate crime."
CBC News has learned Coy and 17 other former students have filed criminal abuse complaints. After a 12-month investigation, Saskatoon police handed the file to Crown prosecutors in April to consider possible charges, according to police emails to students. It's unclear when the Crown will make a decision.
The complaints include frequent paddlings, many of which allegedly occurred after the Supreme Court of Canada outlawed corporal punishment by educators in early 2004.
There are also allegations of coercion, traumatizing rituals and solitary confinement.
Many of the former students — and some of their parents — have agreed to tell their stories publicly for the first time to CBC News. They shared diaries, police statements and other documentation.
They say the physical, financial, social and emotional control from school and church officials was absolute, and that it has taken years to regain their dignity and sanity. Some say they're still struggling.
"It's taken a long time for people to speak up. I mean, it was a cult. It was essentially a cult," said Caitlin Erickson, the first student to come forward to police.
Officials with the adjacent Legacy Christian Academy — the name was changed from Christian Centre Academy (CCA) in 2013 — initially agreed to an interview and said they'd answer all questions. The next day, they emailed a written statement and declined to answer any further questions.
"We are grieved to learn of former students who feel they were subjected to abuse during their time at CCA. We encourage and support any former student who feels this way to file a report with the police so these matters can be investigated and dealt with properly and legally," the statement said.
Many of the alleged incidents involved leaders and staff of both the school and adjoining Saskatoon Christian Centre, now known as Mile Two Church. The two institutions have long shared a building in Saskatoon's Lawson Heights neighbourhood, and the school's current handbook notes they are guided by the "doctrinal beliefs" of Mile Two Church such as the infallibility of the Bible.
Mile Two Church officials declined repeated interview requests.
Erickson and other students say they're skeptical. They say some of the same people are still working at the school and church, and that there has been no effort to apologize or make amends.
"They simply changed the name. It's just a rebranding," Erickson said.
Manual details 'scriptural discipline'
Christian Centre Academy opened its doors to students in 1982, but it didn't receive provincial accreditation allowing students to enter university or college until 1994. Like other private schools, parents pay tuition and participate in fundraising. It has also been receiving Saskatchewan government funding for the past decade.
Most of the former students who've come forward attended between 1995 and 2010, but there is no time limit on legal complaints of this nature involving minors.
Students and experts interviewed say all government subsidies and tax breaks for the church and school must be halted until police and prosecutors have dealt with the complaints and the government has conducted a full investigation of the school's current practices.
They agree some key staff have left, but the former principal and school director are now teaching at other Christian schools in Saskatchewan.
"Oh my god, this makes my stomach turn. How could this happen?" said University of Regina professor emerita Ailsa Watkinson, who was involved in the 2004 Supreme Court case to ban corporal punishment in schools.
"Religion was used to torment, to discriminate. It's cruel. This is torture. Anyone with common sense knows this."
CBC News has obtained an 85-page, eight-lesson manual called The Child Training Seminar, written by the father of the current pastor. Students say that, during their time at the school, it was sold in the gift shop along with bibles and a selection of hand-made wooden paddles of various sizes. Students say it was used by school staff and strongly recommended for parents.
More than 20 pages are devoted to the benefits and practical applications of "scriptural discipline."
It states "ungodly" professors, researchers and psychologists who opposed corporal punishment are "influenced by the devil" and should be ignored.
"Sometimes, spanking will leave marks on the child. If some liberal were to hear this, they'd immediately charge us with advocating child-beating," states the handbook.
It gives detailed instruction on the types of infractions that warrant paddling, such as riding a bicycle while "forbidden."
"Have him bend over and apply the paddle firmly. Don't permit any wiggling around or jumping around. Don't allow any pre-discipline howling and sniveling. Don't let his crying and begging diminish the severity of punishment," the handbook says.
For parents, it states fathers are the head of the household and must ensure the discipline is unemotional and consistent. It warns against using verbal discipline and says "mothers need to particularly guard against this."
It's unclear whether any of the handbook remains in use. The current student handbook makes no mention of corporal punishment in its "forms of discipline" section.
'I was so scared': former student
Sean Kotelmach, who attended the school from 1996 to 2008, said he had difficulty keeping up with the largely self-directed curriculum, which relied heavily on memorization and obedience. In his frustration, he began to talk back.
"They made me think I was stupid," he said.
Kotelmach said he endured a punishment akin to solitary confinement as a 13-year-old. He was forced to arrive at school 15 minutes before other students, work alone at a desk in a small, windowless room for the entire day, then leave 15 minutes after his classmates had departed. He said this continued for two weeks.
He said he was also paddled multiple times. Kotelmach said he and others would "pad" their buttocks with up to nine pairs of underwear to soften the blows. If discovered, the student would be forced to remove the underwear and punishment would increase.
"Every part of me wanted to walk to the police and simply pull down my pants and show them what was done to me," Kotelmach said. "[But] I was scared. I was so scared. I worried my parents would get in trouble for sending me to that school."
Later in life, medical tests would reveal Kotelmach's dyslexia. He's now creative director for a local marketing and media company, but said the emotional scars remain.
Kotelmach said he found the courage to file a police report last year after speaking with Erickson.
"I was tired of living with rage. I wake up in the middle of the night screaming. That's no way to live. I want it to stop. I needed to do my part and say something," Kotelmach said.
'Criminal law applies to all of us': law professor
The former students say many of these incidents, including Coy Nolin's exorcism and paddling, occurred after the Supreme Court ruling in 2004.
In the ruling, the court limited corporal punishment to parents, and only under narrow circumstances. It must be proportional, can only be done on children between the ages of two and 12, and no implements are allowed.
It banned all other officials from doing so, and specifically mentioned teachers and school officials.
Queen's University law professor Lisa Kelly said any teacher paddling a student after Jan. 30, 2004, was clearly committing an assault.
"That applies in any school, public or private. Criminal law applies to all of us. It is crystal clear," Kelly said.
Kelly said any corporal punishment before 2004 could also be a concern for police and prosecutors. She said spanking, paddling or strapping a child hard enough to leave marks has long been considered by judges as excessive force.
Caitlin Erickson shared a story about her and the rest of the senior girls' volleyball team being accused of whispering during a weekend church service in the fall of 2003.
They say that the following Monday at school, they were lined up in the auditorium and yelled at by the director, the principal and their female coach.
One by one, they were taken into a side room where one of the two male staff paddled them, they say.
"It looked like a canoe oar," said Christina Hutchinson, the team's captain. "Adult men doing that to a bunch of teenaged girls? It was so cruel. They were all crying, but I was so angry I didn't cry."
Like Erickson, Hutchinson said the school and church operated like a cult.
"Everything is based on constant fear — fear of being paddled, fear of going to hell," she said.
They say most girls ended up with marks and bruises on their buttocks that spread as far as the back of their knees.
"I remember a week later, we were comparing bruises [in the locker room] and saying, 'Oh, he must have been tired on you because yours isn't nearly as bad as mine,'" Hutchinson's sister, Stefanie, said.
She said some sessions were so vigorous that paddles broke and had to be duct-taped back together.
Erickson and other students say officials were acutely aware of the law. She said the school's director handed out waivers in late 2003 in anticipation of the Supreme Court ban, asked parents to allow staff to continue paddling their children. Some parents refused to sign the document.
Kelly said waivers would be useless as a defence in court. A parent cannot consent to another person applying punitive physical force on their child.
One year after the Supreme Court ruling, the Saskatchewan government passed legislation banning corporal punishment in public schools. Kelly and Watkinson said this was "redundant" because the Supreme Court ruling already applied across Canada.
Academics said corporal punishment actually makes things worse. In a 2012 meta-analysis published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, authors found that children who were spanked, paddled or strapped are more likely to have mental health issues, are more prone to violence and have lower quality relationships than those raised in a non-violent manner.
"Virtually without exception, these studies found that physical punishment was associated with higher levels of aggression against parents, siblings, peers and spouses," stated the summary.
One of that paper's authors, University of Manitoba professor Joan Durant, said the accounts of the Saskatoon students are heartbreaking.
"All of those things you describe are degradation and abuse. Intentionally instilling fear, isolation — none of that is acceptable. It never was," said Durant, author of the book Positive Discipline in Everyday Life.
'She doesn't have a demon — she's just shy': parent
In their written statement to CBC News, school officials say paddling hasn't been used there for two decades. When asked for specifics, they declined.
They said exorcism "has never been practised in our school, and we are unaware of any instance where this might have occurred."
Former students say that's not true.
On top of the exorcism described by the Nolin family, Hutchinson said they also took place on school property.
Hutchinson said when she was eight years old, she was asked to say the school prayer for the class. She was nervous and froze. She said that, for a week, the teacher kept her inside during recess. The teacher would sit Hutchinson on her lap, firmly squeeze and rock her repeatedly while speaking in tongues, Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson told her parents, who told administration, "She doesn't have a demon — she's just shy."
In the statement, officials said any homophobia alleged by Coy Nolin and others does not exist at the school today.
"Our position on LGBTQ issues is that all students are welcome in our school, and we strive to provide a safe place for every student to grow and learn who God created them to be...we are committed to creating an environment where everyone is valued and treated with dignity, love, and respect. Therefore, we would never discipline students for their sexual orientation or gender identity," said the statement.
They say the school is a different place than it was even a few years ago, with many new staff and leaders.
"We would welcome conversations with any students who might wish to come and revisit the school and, hopefully, find an opportunity for reconciliation," it said.
Caitlin Erickson, Sean Kotelmach, Coy Nolin, Christina Hutchinson and others say many of the longtime staff and their relatives remain in key positions, from the pastor to the school principal.
They say no effort has been made to apologize publicly or privately.
Students waiting for justice
The students say their anxiety is growing as they wait to hear from police and prosecutors.
It's unclear when Crown prosecutors will decide whether charges are warranted. In an email to a student, a Saskatoon police investigator said abuse files involving only a single complainant and accused can take six weeks for prosecutors to decide on possible charges. She said this file had been passed to Crown prosecutors and a decision on possible charges could take until April 2023.
A Saskatchewan Justice official declined to give details on the file and recommended asking the Saskatoon Police Service. A Saskatoon police official said they can't comment because the investigation is ongoing.
Students say the people who committed the abuse must be held accountable, but that there were many other adults who witnessed it and did nothing. They wonder why this systemic abuse was ignored for so long.
That's why they want the provincial government to investigate the school itself, freezing any funding and cancelling any tax breaks until all questions are answered.
In a written statement, a provincial Ministry of Education official said three on-site inspections are now conducted annually on independent schools, and the most recent one at Legacy Christian Academy occurred June 8.
It also said the Ministry of Education "has not received any complaints regarding LCA since funding for Qualified Independent Schools (QIS) began in 2012."
Erickson says that's not true. She shared a June 20 email exchange with Education Minister Dustin Duncan's assistant.
Erickson emailed Duncan to say she "reached out to your office a number of times and received no response." She identifies herself as a former student of Christian Centre Academy, now Legacy Christian Academy, and informs him of the criminal investigation underway.
"You have been told time and time again the damage these schools do," she said before calling on the minister to de-fund LCA and other private Christian schools.
The minister's assistant wrote back "on behalf of Minister Duncan" and acknowledged receipt of Erickson's email.
"The Minister's response will be forthcoming. Thank-you for taking the time to write," stated the email.
Erickson said she knows of at least one other former student who recently told Duncan to de-fund LCA.
'I'm proud of who I am': Coy
Coy and his mother Carilyn say that following the exorcism in their home, officials declared Coy would be sent away to a special school in Edmonton to be "cured" of being gay.
Carilyn said she had ignored other warning signs over the years — including officials forcing Coy and the others to attend protests against gay marriage legislation — because her extended family, friends, finances and children's futures were all connected to the church and school.
But the exorcism was too much. She stayed up all night writing a letter to the director and placed it on the windshield of his car.
"I thought this would be a wonderful school, but this was ridiculous. I am not sending my child away," she said.
"We left and never looked back. It was like a thousand-pound weight lifted from my chest. It was the best thing I ever did."
After graduating from a public high school a year later, Coy Nolin spent a couple of years in Banff, terrified to admit he was gay even to his own mother.
He eventually told her in a phone call.
"I know. I love you. Come home," she said. Coy did.
Now working in a Saskatoon department store and in a loving relationship, the 34-year-old said life is still a struggle but he has many reasons to be grateful.
"It took a long time," he said. "But I'm proud of who I am."
With files from Jessie Anton