Trio felt compelled to go public

Women wanted to be identified as complainants because they were doing the right thing

The genesis of the prosecution of former teacher Tom Ellison was a simple twist of a fate — a chance meeting of two former Prince of Wales students at a Boxing Day dinner party in 1992.

Laura Anderson and her husband Dave attended a dinner at the home of the parents of Denise Tupman. Dave was a newly ordained United Church minister and had been invited to dinner by Tupman’s parents, who were members of his congregation.

While standing around the buffet table, the Andersons began chatting with Denise Tupman. Laura Anderson discovered that she and Tupman, who was four years older than Laura, had both attended Prince of Wales secondary school on Vancouver’s west side. And both had been students in the outdoor education program Quest, which was headed by Ellison.

While talking about their years in Quest, Dave Anderson asked Tupman point blank: “Were you one of Ellison’s victims?”

Tupman was momentarily stunned. “Yes,” she replied, “But I’ve never told anyone.”

“You better talk to Laura,” Dave suggested.

The two women then went off to discuss their experiences with Ellison, who now is on trial for 16 counts of alleged sexual misconduct involving 12 complainants between 1972 and 1983 while the girls were 15 to 18.

During that initial conversation, Tupman was told by Laura Anderson that she had had a sexual relationship with Ellison while she was a student, which Anderson had told her husband about earlier.

Anderson also said she knew of at least two other girls who had similar experiences with Ellison while they were teenage students at Prince of Wales, including one who continued having a relationship with Ellison for 13 years.

“It shocked the heck out of me,” recalled Tupman, who previously had suspicions that Ellison had sexual relationships with other Quest students.

“I had deluded myself into thinking that I was probably the only girl who had these experiences,” she explained.

The discovery later sent Tupman into a deep depression, mainly because she realized that Ellison had continued his sexual exploits with other vulnerable young female students. Tupman was initially wracked with disgust, then guilt and eventually regret that she hadn’t reported Ellison’s misconduct earlier.

Until that time, Tupman had had a happily married life with two young children. But suddenly she began having difficulty coping. Her husband was so concerned that he encouraged her to see a counsellor. After a few months of counselling, Tupman decided to contact police.

“I realized that the only thing that would bring me peace would be to go to police,” she recalled. She was also tired of the burden of keeping her affair with her teacher secret for so long.

“I don’t want anyone to think I did it out of jealousy,” Tupman said of her reason for contacting the police. “Having children of my own changed things — I knew it was wrong. It was a secret I had carried for 16 years.”

She also was concerned that Ellison, who had left teaching in 1987 and was running an adventure tour company aboard his yacht, was continuing to take out groups of students. “He was still having contact with teenage girls on sailing trips.”

After going to police in March 1993 — Tupman was the first complainant — she didn’t make any effort to convince others to come forward. “I could have pursued people and phoned around,” she said, “but I left it in the hands of fate.”

Laura Anderson also went to police in 1993. Two other former Quest students also came forward in 1993 and 1994, but for reasons that remain unexplained, the investigation stalled.

It wasn’t until 2000 that another complainant came forward. A Vancouver police sex offences squad detective dusted off the file and began contacting other complainants, most of whom didn’t know Ellison had been charged in 2004 until a few weeks ago, when The Vancouver Sun broke the story.

Tupman, who testified last week, recalled she discussed the then-upcoming trial with her children, who had known for years about the Ellison affair. Still, she feared reporters would call her before the trial, which began Oct. 10. “I was so nervous about being publicly identified.”

But after she testified, she decided to have the judge lift the ban on publication of her name.

“I actually hadn’t intended on doing it,” she said. “I planned to testify and fade away.”

Tupman, 46 and an elementary teacher living in Terrace, recalled that she stayed an extra day to hear the testimony of other complainants and became angry watching Ellison in court. She felt he appeared to be unperturbed by the testimony against him.

“It seemed to me that Tom Ellison was feeling no remorse and was seeming rather smug,” Tupman said.

All along, she said, what she had really wanted from him was an apology for the harm he had done to her — she said she had some difficult years in her 20s. Ellison had called her in 1994, angry about her going to police.

“He wanted to know why I had done that,” she recalled of the phone call. “He said, ‘I thought you were special and different from the other girls.’ I told him how it had affected me. If he had apologized then I might feel differently today.”

Another reason for her seeking to have the ban lifted was a comment made to the media by another former Prince of Wales teacher, who made disparaging comments about the complainants.

“Do not blame the victim,” Tupman said. “It may sound cliche, but until you have walked a mile in another’s shoes, do not judge that person.”

Weary of people speculating on why it had taken the complainants so long to come forward, Tupman decided she no longer wanted people to think she was hiding behind her anonymity, so she asked for the ban to be lifted.

“After I did it, a huge sense of relief washed over me,” Tupman recalled. “I’d been keeping this secret for 29 years. I took the power back and said, ‘It’s me — I’m complainant No. 3.’ ”

She hasn’t experienced any negative comments since she “outed” herself, but she completely understands why other women decided not to have the ban lifted. Tupman said she now hopes to return to a normal life.

Laura Anderson also asked the judge to lift the ban on her name. She said in an interview that she discussed the issue with her husband, her children, aged 10 and 13, and her church congregation before she did it.

“For me, there wasn’t a personal cost to pay,” Laura Anderson said. “I have the support of my church, my work and my family.”

She also felt it was important to break the code of silence that often surrounds sexual abuse cases.

“The power of a secret can be really damaging,” explained Anderson. “I was willing to put my name next to the truth I spoke [during her testimony]. I’m a Christian and I believe naming people has power.”

She realizes not all the complainants have the same support network as she does. Her husband said he totally supported his wife’s decision to be named.

He recalled that he used to work with young offenders, many of whom disclosed that they had been sexually abused. And in his work as a minister, people sometimes disclose tales of sexual abuse to him after many decades of suffering in silence.

“I’ve had people in their 70s and 80s disclose for the first time,” he said, adding he understands how difficult it is for some people to ever discuss such things publicly.

The final complainant at Ellison’s trial testified Thursday in camera, meaning the public and the media were excluded from the courtroom. The judge granted the Crown’s unusual request, but a transcript was released Friday that was edited to remove any details that might identify the witness, who said she was “totally humiliated” by an incident that took place on Ellison’s boat in July 1981. “I didn’t tell anyone,” she testified.

Bridget Ross, who also asked to have the ban lifted on her name, said it wasn’t a difficult decision for her because many people knew she had a 13-year relationship with Ellison after high school and that she had complained to police in 2000 about his alleged sexual misconduct when their relationship began during high school.

“Why hide your name when you feel you are doing the right thing?” asked Ross, a Calgary realtor and mother of two school-age children. She said she was not embarrassed by her testimony.

During cross-examination by defence lawyer Bill Smart, it was suggested to Ross that the reason she went to police was that she wanted to have a baby with Ellison but he rejected her and later had a baby with another former Quest student.

“You wanted to cause Mr. Ellison as much harm as you could,” Ellison’s lawyer suggested to Ross.

Ross denied it, recalling that her graduating class’s 20th reunion occurred in 2000 and, during preparations for the reunion, she was urged by others to go to police and contact others who had sexual relationships with Ellison.

“At that time I was a teacher and a parent, and I realized how inappropriate it was,” Ross recalled of Ellison’s conduct while he was teaching. “I had a feeling there was a large number of people who had sexual contact with Tom.”

One of the commonalities among the complainants is that most didn’t know about Ellison’s sexual relationships with other female students during his years at Prince of Wales.

Some testified their relationship with Ellison made them feel “special,” thinking they were in love with their teacher at the time.

The belief that you are the only one is very common among victims in sexual abuse cases, says Vancouver lawyer Megan Ellis, who has handled many civil cases against sexual predators.

“The problem with sexual abuse or sexual exploitation of children is that they are told that adults are there to teach them about the world,” she explained. “So you expect adults in positions of trust are telling you the truth. It always creates confusion in the kid.”

She said it is common for sex abusers to use a grooming process that assures the victim they are special and they shouldn’t tell anyone about their secret relationship, which creates a code of silence that allows the abuser not to get caught or reported to those in authority.

Denise Tupman, who attended years of counselling, agrees.

“I am not ashamed,” she said. “This was not my fault.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Sunday October 22, 2006.
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