Former students of private religious college tell of exorcisms and harsh discipline
TORONTO AND BROCKVILLE, ONT. — A private religious school that charged up to $35,000 a year for tuition has abruptly closed its doors amid allegations of sexual improprieties and cult practices.
Citing rising costs and a drop in enrolment, officials at Grenville Christian College, which sits on one square kilometre on the edge of the St. Lawrence River town of Brockville, Ont., announced at the end of July it would close.
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Students who attended the school over a period dating back to the 1980s paint a picture of a bizarre environment, involving so-called “light sessions” where teenagers were ordered from their beds in the middle of the night, made to sit in a dark room with a bright light shining on their face and accused repeatedly of being sinners by teachers and staff they couldn’t see.
The Right Rev. Peter Mason, the retired bishop of the Anglican diocese of Ontario, which includes Brockville, said he had heard allegations from former staff members of cult behaviour at the school but had not been aware it involved students.
Students from that period have told The Globe and Mail they feel psychologically damaged by their time at the school, which accepted children from the age of 6.
Andrew Hale-Byrne, a British civil servant who graduated from the school in the 1990s, said former students from the past 30 years have begun sharing their experiences at Grenville after one of their number created a message board on an Internet site devoted to cults.
Mr. Hale-Byrne told of being summoned at night to the school chapel and being made to endure an experience that he described as an exorcism, a liturgy for casting out of demons. Mr. Hale-Byrne, who was 16 at the time, said yesterday he felt afraid and isolated.
“For 10, 12 years, I had recurring nightmares about Grenville.
“Our parents had no idea, and a lot of people always ask the question, ‘How did your parents not clue in to this?’ From my perspective, being British, all I can say is that my parents were quite reserved, they were quite wealthy, they were very distant. I tried to tell them briefly about it, and they said, ‘Oh, you’re just in a new culture; Canadians do things differently.’ Also we weren’t with our parents and they [at the school] knew that.”
Present and former staff interviewed by The Globe and Mail acknowledged being aware of the allegations — headmaster Rev. Gordon Mintz called them “disconcerting” — but said they were without foundation.
Rev. Mintz, an Anglican priest, said the school had a “regimented schedule. We pushed people to excellence.”
The message board links Grenville — which counts two former Ontario lieutenant-governors, a senator and a former Canadian high commissioner to the United Kingdom among its “patrons” — to a titular Anglican group known as the Community of Jesus in Massachusetts, which has been labelled a mind-control cult in the U.S. media.
The community’s founders, Mother Cay Andersen and Mother Judy Sorensen, were invited to Grenville in 1973 (“to show us God’s prayerful way of doing things,” according to long-time headmaster Rev. Charles Farnsworth) and lived there for several months.
For years afterward, the community sent its children, especially those considered rebellious, to Grenville.
Both it and the school believed children should be separated from their parents for considerable periods of time because parents were prone to “idolatrize” their offspring and not teach them discipline.
There have been about 1,000 posts to the message board by former students and teachers, several of whom The Globe and Mail has interviewed.
As well as facing the so-called light sessions, students talked of being sentenced to “discipline”: ordered not to speak for a week, or assigned to wash dishes, scrub toilets or cut the lawn with scissors, or — especially when the alleged sin involved contact with the opposite sex — be suspended for weeks.
Many of the students say that throughout their years at Grenville, they were constantly told by staff how mediocre they were so as not to develop pride and turn away from God.
According to a number of students, some senior staff at the school seemed obsessed with sex.
Jay Thompson, who runs a community advertising website out of Toronto and graduated from Grenville in 1995, said girls were required to bend over in their dormitories in the morning to make sure their underpants couldn’t be seen and had their drawers regularly rifled by teachers to ensure they wore only the most modest garments.
Girls who let their hair grow too long were summoned before staff and told they were Jezebels — the name for the biblical temptress who turned an ancient king of Israel away from God.
Jesse Noonan of Ottawa recalled in an interview being asked over and over again by a teacher for minute details on his sexual encounter with a girl.
Mr. Thompson said he was not allowed to graduate because he brought his girlfriend to the graduation ceremony.
A female student alleged in a message-board posting that insulting sexual comments were made to her by a teacher who also licked her neck.
Michael Phelan, of Binghamton, N.Y., the son of a former headmaster and a professional musician, said he was ordered by staff not to play the piano for long periods of time because it would make him “haughty.”
He said in an interview he continues to have regular nightmares about his time at the school.
Bishop Mason, who said he had a “pastoral but not canonical relationship” with the school when he was head of the Kingston-based Ontario diocese, said he was aware staff members were subjected to the light sessions but not students.
Although both the former and current headmasters, Rev. Farnsworth and Rev. Mintz, are Anglican priests, Bishop Mason implied that the school was Anglican in name only. He said the school was not under the church’s control.
The website has a lot of discussion about the possibility of taking civil or criminal action against the school, but no suits have been launched. Grenville County Ontario Provincial Police said they have no complaints against the school on file.
Sidebar: Grenville College
Known as St. Mary’s School in the early 1900s, and set up for young boys who wanted to become priests.
The main building was built in 1902 by a Redemptorist order of Catholic priests.
In 1969, it was sold to Berean Christian Schools, led by the Reverends Al Haig and Charles Farnsworth. Grenville Christian College was created in the early 1970s as an ecumenical Christian school for young men and women. A number of new facilities, including the dining room, staff apartments, a gymnasium, track and chapel were added while Rev. Farnsworth and his wife, Betty, headed the school.
GCC is situated on 107 hectares of lawns and forest overlooking the St. Lawrence River in Brockville, Ont.
The school motto is Copiosa Apud Eum Redemptio (In Him is Plenteous Redemption).
It claims 98 per cent of its graduates are accepted to universities and colleges of their choice.
GCC is a registered non-profit organization.
PRIVATE SCHOOLS AND SEXUAL CONVICTIONS
Private schools in Canada that have seen staff members convicted of sexual offences
Upper Canada College, Toronto
In 2005, former teacher Douglas Brown was sentenced to three years in prison for sexually assaulting six students in the mid-1970s. Mr. Brown is appealing this decision. In 2006, Lorne Cook was convicted of the sexual assault of two pupils, resulting in a one-year conditional sentence that included 30 days of house arrest, and a three-year ban on contact, as either a teacher or volunteer, with people under the age of 14 without another adult present. Teacher Clark Noble admitted at a hearing to the 1971 rape of an 18-year-old UCC student he had taken to his midtown Toronto apartment after a night of bar-hopping.
Crescent School, Toronto
In the spring of 2006, John Inglis, a former math teacher and guidance counsellor at Crescent School, was sentenced to 15 months of house arrest for sexually assaulting four male former students at his Bancroft, Ont., cottage during the summers of 1978 through 1985.
Appleby College, Oakville, Ont.
In a 1998 plea bargain that allowed him to escape incarceration, Clark Noble pleaded guilty to the 1988 sexual assault of a former male student of Appleby College, a top-flight Ontario private school. It was at this same hearing that Mr. Noble admitted to the December, 1971, rape of a UCC student at his Toronto apartment.
Knight’s Alternative School, Forest Glen, N.S.
In 2000, Donald Charles Knight, a former teacher in Cape Breton, was sentenced to six years in prison after pleading guilty to five charges of sexually abusing young boys. The judge reduced the sentence to three years because of time already served. Six students between the ages of 10 and 15 were abused at Knight’s Alternative School in Forest Glen, N.S., between 1984 and 1993.
St. John’s Cathedral, Boys’ School, Winnipeg
In 2001, Kenneth Mackinnon Mealey, a teacher and assistant headmaster at St. John’s Cathedral Boys’ School, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 30 months in jail for fondling young boys as they slept. The incidents occurred from 1984 to 1986. The private Anglican school, which had Grades 8 through 12, closed in 1990 because of falling enrolment.
Compiled by Johanna Boffa and Stephanie Chambers