The Anglican priest alleged to have abused students through cult practices at an Eastern Ontario elite private school may face a rare ecclesiastical court convened by the bishop who is investigating his behaviour.
The judicial procedure — almost never used in the Anglican Church of Canada — would be triggered by Rev. Charles Farnsworth’s refusal to accept either a finding by the bishop that the allegations are substantive or a sentence of punishment that the bishop might impose.
It has been used perhaps half a dozen times over the past 170 years.
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Mr. Farnsworth, in a Globe and Mail interview, has denied any knowledge of students being abused sexually, psychologically or physically during the two decades ending in 1997 when he was headmaster of Grenville Christian College near Brockville, Ont. He also has denied the specific allegations against him.
Bishop George Bruce, who heads the diocese in which the now-closed school is located, has interviewed or scheduled interviews so far with nearly 20 former students and will continue his investigation at least until the end of this month.
He has told former students he is taking their allegations “very seriously” and that he will keep his investigation open until everyone who wants to be heard is heard.
Bishop Bruce recently ordered Mr. Farnsworth to stop going door to door in Brockville handing out cards asking for people’s prayers. This week, the bishop began receiving allegations of sexual misconduct by the now-retired priest, and he is looking into complaints of abuse perpetrated by lay staff members that may have been done with Mr. Farnsworth’s knowledge or approval.
Former students have said they were routinely called sluts, whores and Jezebels by Mr. Farnsworth and by teachers. One former student, Sheila O’Sullivan, wrote in a formal complaint to the bishop that Mr. Farnsworth used vulgar sexual language with her, told her she was “nothing but a piece of meat,” questioned her inappropriately, licked her neck and held her in his arms and told her she smelled good.
Ms. O’Sullivan and other former students have told the bishop of being dragged from their beds in the middle of the night and brought before so-called “light sessions,” where groups of staff members would humiliate them and yell at them to confess sins. They have told him of being sentenced to silence for days and weeks as part of “discipline.”
In one case, Bishop Bruce has been told of a beating administered to a male student who was held down by one teacher while another hit him with a heavy wooden object as both yelled: “Confess! Confess!”
Former teachers have said all but one or two of the school’s staff until at least 1997 were “oblates” of the Community of Jesus, an organization in Massachusetts that has been identified in the U.S. media as a cult.
The community’s leadership was in close contact with the school and Mr. Farnsworth for more than 20 years. Those who professed an “Oblate Covenant” with the community were considered to be part of it and subject to the authority of its leaders.
Bishop Bruce also has initiated a formal inquiry into complaints against a second priest, Rev. Gordon Mintz, who was the school’s headmaster at the time its closing was announced in July, and a church source said he may question his predecessor, retired Bishop Peter Mason, on what he knew about the school.
The investigation into Mr. Mintz’s conduct may be problematic because he was not an ordained priest at the time he is alleged to have mistreated students.
Bishop Bruce has said he and his diocesan authorities past and present had no jurisdiction over the school as an institution, or over its lay staff, but only over the priests who were at the school.
Bishop Mason, who retired five years ago, said in an interview with The Globe and Mail last week that he was aware of “a controversy around styles of leadership” at the school.
He also said that he visited the Community of Jesus for two or three days because he was curious to learn more about it, and that he was aware of the light sessions, which he described as “situations in a person’s life that they felt needed to be addressed and they would do it in a group.”
He said: “It might not be my cup of tea and I’m thinking in some ways it wasn’t. But I don’t recall being of the impression that I would blow a whistle on them.”
He said at no time was he aware that students were being subjected to any of the practices engaged in by adult staff. “I am surprised to hear it,” he said.
He also said that none of the complaints about Mr. Farnsworth brought to him by staff were serious enough to warrant an investigation.