Who let the wolves in?

Mount Cashel survivors horrified as more than 60 Vancouver men come forward with allegations against the teachers who abused them

A close portrait of a middle-aged man in a green shirt, who is looking upward
Bob Connors was a key figure in the Hughes Inquiry into the abuse at Mount Cashel Orphanage in St. John's. He hasn’t spoken publicly about what his family endured since 1989 but is speaking up now to show support for men in Vancouver now going through a similar process.Turgut Yeter/CBC

​Warning: This story contains details of sexual abuse and suicide

Bob Connors is waiting for a reckoning.

At 59 years of age, he spends many nights trapped in the orphanage where he grew up. The walls of his suburban home transform into a darkened dormitory, and he’s haunted by the men who crept from one bed to the next.

His dreams reflect the terror he experienced as a little boy at the hands of the Christian Brothers at Mount Cashel Orphanage in St. John’s. His abusers may have disappeared from the dormitories, but Connors has spent his entire life fighting off their forceful hands in the dark.

“The scars and the bad memories — that’ll stay with me for the rest of my life,” he said in a rare interview from his home near Kitchener, Ont.

Newfoundland and Labrador has spent decades trying to quantify the horrors at Mount Cashel. Hundreds abused. More than a dozen men charged. Tens of millions paid out in settlements.

Bob Connors chooses to measure Mount Cashel by its death toll — how many young men couldn’t stand the nightmares anymore?

It’s a count that includes his two younger brothers, Greg and Darrin, whom he tried so hard to protect.

“There was no other way out for them and eventually they took their lives,” Connors said. “And it all had to do with what happened in Mount Cashel.”

Connors holds a devastating place in Newfoundland and Labrador’s history: he was one of the boys who went to police in 1975 and told them children were being abused at the orphanage. His statement, along with about 23 others, were buried in a coverup that saw six Christian Brothers sent away and the investigation called off without charges.

Connors is only now learning what happened after the coverup, as new allegations emerge in a Vancouver courtroom, and another city struggles to quantify allegations of systemic, institutional abuse by the very same men who were removed from Mount Cashel.

Connors is waiting for a reckoning — but not for the people who abused him or those who covered it up. Instead, he’s waiting for the day it all catches up with him and the gates he’s built around his suburban life come crashing down.

A man wears a loose yellow polo shirt, blue shorts and sandals. He is standing on pavement near a tree-lined street.
Colin Wilson says his experience at Vancouver College left him with trauma he’s struggled with for decades. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

II. ‘I never told my parents’

Colin Wilson remembers the rain hitting the roof of the van as he sat in silence, his teacher gripping the wheel as they drove farther from the school.

It was a cold evening in December 1984. Some kids at Vancouver College were helping out with the annual Christmas tree sale in the parking lot, but Wilson and three other boys were inside.

Wilson remembers the four Grade 9 boys sitting outside Joseph Burke’s office at the back of the cafeteria. Burke, a math teacher, called them in one at a time, checking over their schoolwork. It was late by the time Burke called for him, Wilson said, and he could tell he was angry.

Wilson wasn’t always afraid of his math teacher. He was an athletic student, and Burke was the coach of the football team. In a school filled with more “militant” Christian Brothers, Wilson said he trusted Burke and found they had things in common.

“He started to kind of take me under his wing with a few other kids and have us after school,” Wilson said. “Check up on our homework and make sure that we were being good students.”

A grainy black and white image of a bearded man with a jacket on a football field
Joseph Burke, left, became the head coach of the Vancouver College Fighting Irish football team after a stint across town at St. Thomas More Collegiate. A former standout football player himself, he returned to teach and coach in the 1980s. (St. Thomas More Collegiate yearbook)

Burke was collegial in the corridors and on the football field, Wilson said, but he began to show a different side of himself as the after-school sessions progressed. There were days where Burke would be looking for problems, Wilson said, and he was quick to anger.

Wilson said there were three stages to Burke’s discipline: spanking over the pants with the palm of his hand, spanking with a piece of wood about as thick as a hockey stick, and a bare-bottom spanking.

Burke has not responded to CBC’s requests for comment on the allegations in this story. Wilson’s allegations have yet to be tested in court.

On this particular December evening, Wilson said Burke told him they were going straight to Stage 3 — but it was too late to stay at the school.

Wilson said Burke took him along as he locked up, and then told him to get in his van. He said they sat in silence as Burke drove south to the Marpole neighbourhood, stopping outside his apartment and telling the 13-year-old boy to go inside.

Wilson recounts the story without hesitation.

“He then asked me to drop my pants, which I did, and I stood there in my underwear, and he said, ‘All of it.’ At this point I’m crying, you know, snot and everything coming out of my nose, and he put me across his lap and hit me.”

Wilson said Burke hit his bare bottom about 10 times while they were alone in his apartment, then told him to get dressed. He remembers sobbing as they got back in the van, and drove to a bus stop.

“I never told my parents.”

A colour photograph shows a teenage boy holding two lit candles while sitting on a couch
Colin Wilson was in eighth grade when he transferred to Vancouver College, a private Catholic school. He says his life was turned upside down a year later when he was abused by a teacher. (Submitted by Colin Wilson)

Wilson’s parents were devout Catholics, and Vancouver College was considered an elite private school for Catholic boys. It was run by the Christian Brothers of Ireland in Canada, who operated institutions across the country and were revered by the communities they served.

The brothers were something less than priests, but their charitable work and close ties with the Catholic Church made them respected figures. Wilson said his parents would have never believed they could allow something so heinous to happen.

He said the abuse continued throughout the remainder of his Grade 9 year. Wilson remembers being sick with anxiety every morning before school. The following September, he slipped a note under Burke’s door telling him he didn’t need his help anymore.

“He found out what class I was in and he pulled me out. He said, ‘You don’t get to decide.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh my God, this is gonna happen all over again.’ And it didn’t. I think he just moved on.”

Wilson said he couldn’t move on as easily.

“You want things to just disappear, like they never happened,” he said. “And then when it doesn’t, it starts to manifest into depression. Anxiety. Addiction.”

By the early 1990s, Wilson knew he had a problem. In 1994, his family doctor diagnosed him with anxiety and depression. Wilson said the doctor told him there was something going on inside of him, and he needed to search his subconscious to find it.

Fast-forward nearly 30 years, and Wilson was told the same thing again — this time in rehab.

“I just recently did a stint in a recovery centre for alcohol abuse,” Wilson said during an interview in September. “When I was in there … we did a session where I had to find the traumas in my past.”

Wilson said it stirred up painful memories, ones he locked away in 1985. At the urging of his therapist, he began to confront his experiences at Vancouver College and connect them to his daily struggles.

Wilson said he couldn’t begin to heal until he answered a question that was burning in his head — what happened to Joseph Burke?

A Google search turned up a new proposed class action lawsuit, where a man had come forward with allegations of abuse against several Christian Brothers at Vancouver College — including Burke.

The articles about the lawsuit mentioned the Brothers had been accused of physical and sexual abuse before being transferred to Vancouver. That’s when Wilson began looking into the past to learn more about Burke’s seven years in St. John’s.

A black and white photo shows a little boy sitting on a car
Kevin Little grew up in Bonavista, with no running water or electricity. (Submitted by Kevin Little)
A colour photograph shows a young boy wearing a jacket with a crest that says
When he was 10 years old, he was taken to Mount Cashel. (Submitted by Kevin Little)
A colour photograph shows a young man with a mustache
Little has struggled with mental health issues his entire life, which he says are related to abuse at Mount Cashel. (Submitted by Kevin Little)
A family photo of a man in a hospital bed smiling. Five family members are sitting on the bed with him.
Little is pictured here surrounded by family after a suicide attempt when he was a teen. (Submitted by Kevin Little)

III. ‘I will never, ever get that out of my brain’

Kevin Little awoke on Aug. 4 this year the same as he does most other days. He reached to his bedside, grabbed his phone and checked his notifications.

A news alert jolted him awake and threw him 44 years into the past.

The headline read: “Teacher Exonerated at Mount Cashel Abused Kids in B.C. Until at Least 2009, Lawsuit Alleges.” Little tapped his finger on the screen and a picture opened in front of him. It was Joseph Burke.

He felt vindicated — in the worst possible way.

“It was like someone stabbed a knife right in my stomach when I saw it,” Little said. “I want to get my story out there. As horrific as it may sound — or unbelievable to some people — it’s not untrue.”

A middle-aged man with glasses and a red shirt looks to his left
Kevin Little wonders who he would be today if it weren’t for his experiences at Mount Cashel. The St. John’s man has lived a hard life, and is still rebuilding his life in his 50s. (Ryan Cooke/CBC)

Like many of the kids at Mount Cashel, Kevin Little came from a broken home. He lived in a small house in the fishing town of Bonavista with five siblings, and no running water or electricity.

Little was taken out of the home in 1978 and moved to the orphanage with his younger brother for about a year.

“I spent every day in Mount Cashel in fear,” Little said. “A little 10-year-old boy in fear.”

Little remembers being placed in a dormitory under the care of Joseph Burke. He said the beatings started almost immediately — if he failed a test, got in an argument or wet the bed.

“He would make me take off my clothes,” Little said. “Sometimes I would be in the nude and sometimes he would flick my genital area. And on a regular basis, he would make me lift my arms and pinch the skin [on my armpits] and haul the skin away. That’s what he did on a regular basis. And I was frightened to death of this man for every little thing I done.”

On a trip to Quebec with the rest of the boys in the dormitory, Little said, he spent the entire time awake in the hotel room, afraid to go to sleep in case he’d wet the bed.

“I will never, ever get that out of my brain.”

The alleged abuse dogged Little for decades. He suffered depression and anxiety. He squandered a five-year career in the military. He struggled with drugs and alcohol. He attempted suicide for the first time at 17.

“I was always afraid of when the next person was going to grab me,” he said. “Every day, I was in Mount Cashel.”

A black and white archival photo of Mount Cashel Orphanage
Mount Cashel was built at the turn of the 20th century. It wasn’t until 1989 that the general public discovered boys had been abused there for decades. (The Rooms)

Something should have been done in 1975.

Over the course of 13 months, the provincial Department of Social Services received three separate complaints of abuse at the orphanage. The third was little Bobby Connors — who was taken to the government office by his friend’s dad after they ran away from the orphanage.

A few months later, a Royal Newfoundland Constabulary detective called on Connors to come into the station. He remembers being picked up at the orphanage by Brother Douglas Kenny — the worst of his abusers.

“He warned us to be careful about what you say, because if it gets back to him then we would suffer consequences,” Connors recalled.

Connors told the police everything — including how Kenny was sexually abusing him. Somehow, word got back to Kenny after the interview. Connors would later testify that Kenny hit him so hard with a wooden crutch, he broke it.

Connors heard rumblings that other boys were being called in to give statements. He waited weeks for something to happen, but the abuse only continued to get worse. Then, one day, two of the brutish Brothers were gone. A few months later, three more disappeared. Burke vanished, too, but returned soon after and stayed until 1981.

Nobody was charged. No explanation was given on why they were removed. Connors would find out years later some were sent to treatment centres, before being placed in other Christian Brothers schools.

“We told our stories and I think the bottom line was I don’t think anybody believed us,” Connors said. “I know that eventually these Brothers were moved or transported or or taken somewhere else and we figured that was the end of it, right? But then we find out afterwards that they were taken to other schools and moved to other areas and all they were doing was just spreading out, spreading the disease.”

A montage of three photos each showing a young man
Bob Connors,left, Darrin Connors, top right, and Greg Connors all testified at the Hughes Inquiry in 1989. (CBC)

By 1989, the coverup had come undone. Allegations against members of the Christian Brothers were spreading like gospel.

The Connors brothers were star witnesses at the Hughes Inquiry — a judicial inquiry into the abuse at the orphanage. Day after day, former residents testified about what they endured, and the list of accused brothers grew longer.

The inquiry resulted in charges for 14 men. They were charged with things like buggery, indecent assault and assault causing bodily harm.

On April 19, 1989, Burke made his first appearance in a St. John’s courtroom. He was charged with four counts of indecent assault and one count of assault causing bodily harm.

Little was among Burke’s accusers. So was Bob Connors’ brother Darrin.

Six of the men arrested were found to be teaching in Vancouver. Burke was the vice-principal of Vancouver College. He was adamant in his defence, and had a wave of public support within the Catholic communities in St. John’s and Vancouver.

A montage of three men, each exiting provincial court in St. John's
Douglas Kenny, left, Edward English, middle, and Joseph Burke, right, were all charged with offences from Mount Cashel. (CBC)

All six were found guilty and sentenced to jail. Burke, however, appealed all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, and in 1996, was acquitted on all four indecent assault charges. One of the judges wrote that Kevin Little’s testimony was “too bizarre to accept.”

They said it was inconceivable that nobody would have witnessed the scabs under Little’s arms, since the boys used communal showers at the orphanage.

“It was like I was being victimized all over again,” Little said. “They made us look like fools.”

The Supreme Court decision also eviscerated Darrin Connors’ allegations of sexual abuse. The court sided with Burke’s lawyers on suggestions Connors colluded with another witness to concoct significant parts of their testimony. The court said Connors had a “history of chronic dishonesty.”

Connors spoke to CBC News the day the decision was released.

“Joe Burke should go to jail. Joe Burke did what he did,” Connors told the reporter. “I said it to his face in court, and I’ll say it to him again any time, anywhere, any place. The man did what he did. He did it to me. He did it to other people. The man is a sadistic bastard.”

Despite the acquittals, Burke was irascible when he sat down with CBC News in 1996.

“I don’t feel ecstatic about it,” he said. “I’m still very angry that it happened in the first place. That I was found guilty of things that I don’t even think about. No. I gave seven years of my life to that province and they took seven more.”

A still from video shows a red-haired man with a beard and a blue shirt
Joseph Burke spoke to CBC News in 1996, on the heels of his convictions being overturned by Newfoundland and Labrador's appeals court. The acquittal was upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada. (CBC)

One conviction remained against Burke. On the charge of assault causing bodily harm — for hitting a boy so hard he couldn’t sit down — he was granted a conditional discharge. That meant he would have no criminal record if he went 12 months without reoffending.

“It would obviously be in the public interest for a person of his calibre to return to the teaching profession,” wrote James Gushue, Newfoundland and Labrador’s former chief justice, in his sentencing decision.

There was nothing holding up his teaching licence in British Columbia. With the conditional discharge secured, Burke returned to work at Vancouver College.

IV. ‘Did they get what they deserved?’

Darrin Connors never recovered.

Bob Connors said the abuse paired with the sting of the Supreme Court decision was too much for his younger brother to handle. Darrin would often wonder why people believed his older brother, but not him.

“I think it tore him apart,” Bob Connors said. “I think the only reason they believed me more than they believed him is because of that interview I did in ‘75 or ‘76 or whatever at the police station. And there was a written statement. They should have interviewed everybody, every single person in the orphanage. Whether they wanted to or not, they should have went through everybody.”

Bob Connors married young and moved away from St. John’s, starting a family near Kitchener, Ont. While the nightmares still bother him, he spends every waking moment building a better life for his family of five.

His brothers, on the other hand, struggled to make connections. Being closer in age, Darrin and Greg went through the orphanage together, while Bob was separated from them. They were moulded by trauma, bonded together by their shared experiences — forever.

Greg Connors died by suicide on Nov. 6, 2014. He left a note on the door telling Darrin to call 911, and not to come inside. Darrin didn’t listen.

Darrin Connors followed his brother on June 8, 2016, dying by suicide in the same place he found his brother’s body.

Family photos show two men. On the left is a balding man looking at the camera. On the right is a man dressed in a security officer's uniform
Greg Connors, left, and Darrin Connors both died by suicide less than two years apart. Their oldest brother says they could never recover from the abuse they suffered as children. (Greg Connors/Facebook, Darrin Connors/Facebook)

The experience was hell for the last surviving Connors brother. His wife and kids helped him through, giving him all the love and support he should have had as a child. He doesn’t talk about Mount Cashel much anymore, agreeing to an interview only to lend his support to those in Vancouver who are now speaking up for the first time.

He knows what they’re going through. The civil case will play out for years. The RCMP in British Columbia are looking into historic allegations against one Christian Brother, and not ruling out investigations into more. If charges are laid, Connors knows first-hand how hard a trial can be, having testified against his abusers in open court.

Of the six brothers transferred from Mount Cashel to British Columbia, nobody served more than four years. All of them are still alive today — and that alone feels like an injustice to Connors after burying his younger brothers.

“What is justice? I mean, did they get what they deserved? No, of course not,” Connors said. “I think they got away with bloody murder, which is exactly what happened with Greg and Darrin. For me it was murder, right? And it’s all on them. There is no justice.”

A man looks into the camera while sitting in his kitchen. He has glasses and a solemn expression
Kevin Little works as a security guard for a health authority now. He’s been through years of therapy, but still struggles with his mental health. (Ryan Cooke/CBC)

“Justice” is one of Kevin Little’s trigger words, too. He’s in one of the most stable places he’s ever been, enjoying moments of peace with his fiancée and his cats, but anger still sits just below the surface.

He wants to see the RCMP and Vancouver Police Department investigate the allegations made in the proposed class-action lawsuit. While he was devastated by his own experiences with the justice system, he doesn’t want others to shy away from the process because of what he went through.

Aside from his court testimony, Little has never before spoken publicly about his experiences at Mount Cashel. He decided the time was right to step forward and let people know about his scars.

“I want to do this for all the other victims. I want to stand up for them,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to tell your story.”

A grey-haired man looks into the camera. He is standing outdoors in Vancouver
Colin Wilson is one year sober. He says his family, especially his son, is his reason for staying sober. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Joseph Burke taught at Vancouver College until 2013, when he was suspended during an investigation into his disciplinary tactics. He opted for retirement.

Greg Connors would turn 58 this week.

Darrin Connors would be 57 next month.

Kevin Little is 55.

The youngest member of the proposed class-action lawsuit is 30. He’s accused Burke of sexually abusing him as late as 2009.

The proposed class action has yet to be certified by a judge. Hearings wrapped up on Nov. 17, and a judge is expected to render a decision in the new year. Lawyers for the plaintiffs argued the abuse was systemic, so all the cases should be connected as one class action. They say this approach would also make it easier for victims to come forward, as they’d have the power of a group.

The lawsuit names the two schools, six Christian Brothers from Mount Cashel — Joseph Burke, Edward English, Douglas Kenny, Edward French, David Burton and Kevin Short — as well as the former head of the Christian Brothers of Ireland in Canada, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vancouver and the Catholic Independent Schools of Vancouver Archdiocese.

Vancouver College and St. Thomas More Collegiate, meanwhile, say they support any investigations into claims of abuse but argue it should be handled on an individual basis.

“The key issues are individual and dependent on factual findings that cannot be made on a class-wide basis,” reads a statement from Vancouver College. “The proposed common issues trial will not address, and will only delay, the determination of issues that are predominant for all the claimants.”

“Crimes of abuse are tragic and have lifelong impacts to those involved and we express profound sympathy to anyone who has been impacted in any way by any abuse,” reads a statement from St. Thomas More Collegiate. A spokesperson for the school said they cannot comment on the ongoing court matter, but added, “What I can say is that we urge anyone needing it to seek support through a trusted resource.”

Burke has mostly avoided the court proceedings, citing poor health. He showed his face in the courtroom for the first time on Nov. 15, sitting in for a few hours as lawyers neared the end of their arguments.

Burke has not filed a defence in court.

Colin Wilson hopes the class action proceeds. He wants to know who knew about the allegations at Mount Cashel and how the six men from the orphanage could be allowed to teach again.

“I don’t know if you know Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus was preaching to be aware of wolves in sheep’s clothing,” Wilson said. “Well, that’s what Mr. Burke was. He was able to manipulate the situation and be your friend and then on the flip side turn into this evil man and he is a very sick individual. He’s caused a lot of pain for a lot of people.”

Dozens of men say they were abused as students at two private schools in B.C., and are now discovering their teachers left a path of destruction on the other side of the country.
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