Saskatoon

Lawsuit alleges sexual abuse of former students and coverup at private Sask. Christian school

Sexual abuse was perpetrated — and covered up — by multiple officials at a private Saskatoon Christian school and adjacent church, say former students.

Plaintiffs seeking $25M in compensation and for school to be closed

Former students of the Christian Centre Academy, now called Legacy Christian Academy, are seeking $25 million in compensation, as well as other unspecified damages. They also want an immediate and permanent closure of the school, and to permanently prohibit all of the defendants from working in schools with minors. (Jason Warick/CBC)

WARNING: This story contains disturbing details.

Sexual abuse was perpetrated — and covered up — by multiple officials at a private Saskatoon Christian school and adjacent church, say former students.

The allegations are contained in a 30-page statement of claim filed Monday afternoon at Saskatoon's Court of Queen's Bench by Saskatoon lawyers Grant Scharfstein and Samuel Edmondson.

The proposed class action lawsuit follows a CBC News investigation this month into allegations by more than 30 students of widespread physical abuse, solitary confinement, exorcisms and forced political campaigning.

An undisclosed number of former student plaintiffs are seeking $25 million in compensation, as well as other unspecified damages. They also want an immediate and permanent closure of the school, and to permanently prohibit all of the defendants from working in schools with minors.

According to the statement of claim, students "were physically, sexually, psychologically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually traumatized by their experiences." They engaged in self harm and substance abuse, became suicidal, had difficulty maintaining employment or relationships, and continue to require medical and psychological care, it states.

"The harms were each intended, foreseeable and expected consequences of the wrongful acts of the Defendants," it states.

Nearly two dozen officials are named, and the document states others not yet named are also implicated. All were staff, volunteers, leaders or "elders" with the former Saskatoon Christian Centre Church and the Christian Centre Academy school, now known as Mile Two Church and Legacy Christian Academy.

None of the allegations made in the proposed class action lawsuit have been proven in court. No statement of defence has been filed, and defendants have roughly one month to do so.

A Mile Two Church official contacted by CBC News Monday said he would do an interview Tuesday, after speaking with a lawyer first. Instead, Pastor Brien Johnson sent an emailed statement Tuesday. 

He said Mile Two Church has not yet seen the statement of claim but will "thoroughly examine" it once it's received.

"We have to trust that the legal system will provide clarity around who did what to whom, and when, and will ultimately hold those responsible to account for their actions," Johnson wrote.

He added that the Mile Two Church community is "deeply troubled" by the details of abuse reported by former students in the media.

'Many of us struggle with this trauma every single day': plaintiff

Caitlin Erickson, one of the plaintiffs, and class action lawyer Grant Scharfstein held a news conference Tuesday afternoon outside the courthouse in Saskatoon.

Erickson, who attended the school and church for 13 years until 2005, said she was subjected to "physical, emotional psychological and sexual abuse" as well as daily intimidation and isolation.

"Many of us struggle with this trauma every single day of our lives," she said Tuesday.

Grant Scharfstein, one of the class action lawyers, stands in front of Caitlin Erickson, a plaintiff who attended Christian Centre Academy until 2005. (Trevor Bothorel/CBC)

Scharfstein estimated that 700 to 800 students that attended the school from the early 1980s until the present day and said he doesn't know how many will come forward alleging they've suffered abuse.

He said similar class action lawsuits have carried on for as long as a decade.

"We certainly, from our end, will push it within the limits of the law as fast as we can, but it's going to take a considerable amount of time," Scharfstein told reporters. 

The statement of claim alleges "employees, agents and representatives of Mile Two Church Inc. engaged in sexual relationships with students and minor adherents and congregants of the church," and that "Employees, agents and representatives of Mile Two Church Inc. engaged in sexual fondling of students and minor adherents and congregants of the church."

In one case, an adult worker told students "to go with him to the bathroom where he would put candy on his penis and have the girl take the candy with her hands or mouth," according to the claim.

On other occasions, the worker would "cut the pockets out of his pants, and told the girls to reach into the pockets and 'see what surprise I have for you,'" states the claim.

In another case, a student was taken into a bathroom by a senior staff member and forced to remove his pants and underwear so he could be inspected "for the presence of paddling," it states.

The allegations are contained in a 30-page statement of claim filed Monday afternoon at Saskatoon's Court of Queen's Bench by Saskatoon lawyers Grant Scharfstein and Samuel Edmondson. (Trevor Bothorel/CBC)

Some students came forward and confided to other staff about the sexual abuse, according to the statement of claim. The students say it was covered up.

According to the statement, the students were sent to unqualified school counsellors who told them not to talk in order to "conceal and maintain secrecy respecting sexual abuse."

The students say they were threatened with paddling and other violence if they didn't keep quiet.

Students say paddling left them bruised

Aside from the alleged sexual assaults, the claim elaborates on other forms of abuse that allegedly happened at the school.

Students say they endured repeated beatings with a large wooden paddle for a host of transgressions. According to the claim, these included whispering during class or church services, perceived disrespect of an adult, socializing with people who were not school or church members, being within six inches of a student of a different sex and failing to inform on fellow students.

One boy who was late completing his school assignments was paddled daily for two months, the claim states.

Several students told CBC News the paddlings often left them bruised and limping for days.

The claim names individuals allegedly responsible, but says the institution is also liable. It claims the institution "breached the standard of care" owed to children in their care.

In recent weeks, CBC News confirmed 18 students have laid criminal complaints with Saskatoon police. More than a dozen others interviewed in the past week say they intend to do so as well.

Students and the province's NDP Opposition are demanding the Saskatchewan Party government suspend operations at the school and conduct a full investigation. Failing that, they want the government to stop sending public funds to the school, which amount to more than $700,000 annually.

Education Minister Dustin Duncan has refused repeated interview requests from CBC News. In a written statement, his office said no action will be considered until the police investigation is complete.

Mile Two Church and Legacy Christian Centre officials have also declined multiple interview requests, but have issued two written statements.

They said they are now welcoming places open to everyone. They said anyone who "feels" they were abused should contact police and pledged to co-operate with any investigation.

They said paddling and other corporal punishment has not occurred at the school in more than two decades, a point disputed by more than a dozen students interviewed.

Officials also say they've made multiple public and private attempts to apologize, but none of the students interviewed were aware of any such gestures.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jason Warick

Reporter

Jason Warick is a reporter with CBC Saskatoon.

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