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Lawyer Lynn Moore outlines class action alleging sexual abuse at Newfoundland and Labrador boys’ and girls’ facilities

Lawyer Lynn Moore is the lead on a class action recently certified that aims to hold the Newfoundland and Labrador government liable for alleged sexual assaults at boys' and girls' homes in Whitbourne, Pleasantville and Waterford Bridge Road.
Lawyer Lynn Moore is the lead on a class action recently certified that aims to hold the Newfoundland and Labrador government liable for alleged sexual assaults at boys' and girls' homes in Whitbourne, Pleasantville and Waterford Bridge Road. - Barb Sweet

'They had no respect for human dignity’

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. —

Allegations of sexual abuse at boys’ and girls’ training facilities were consistently ignored by officials over decades and missed by judicial inquiries while kids were treated like animals, says the lead lawyer on a class action liability lawsuit against the Newfoundland and Labrador government.

The lawsuit involves three boys’ and girls’ training facilities — in Whitbourne, Pleasantville and Waterford Bridge Road — and brackets the years 1973-89.

But while the class action is singled out to those years, Morris Martin Moore lawyer Lynn Moore had charts detailing events from the 1950s-‘90s displayed on the Mount Pearl firm's boardroom wall Monday as she briefed reporters on events from those decades put together from former residents’ accounts, the research of a hired historian and documents obtained from the provincial government. 

“What I find startlingly horrifying about this is that sexual abuse in our institutions has been happening for decades and the government response has been woefully inadequate,” Moore said. 

“They were horribly mismanaged, and they had no respect for basic human dignity. They did not treat these children as children. … It’s our view that the governments of the day were more concerned about the embarrassment of this coming forward then they were about protecting children, and these were vulnerable children. Until 1984 (when the Young Offenders Act came in), some of those kids ended up in there because they were neglected. There was nobody who could take care of them. … These are the children who are the most vulnerable you could imagine.”

“They were horribly mismanaged, and they had no respect for basic human dignity. They did not treat these children as children." — Lynn Moore

After 1984, the sites became correctional facilities, which should have been bound by requirements to keep the inmates safe, she said.

“And they were not safe at all,” Moore said.

The Department of Justice said Monday that while the province consented to having the matter proceed as a class action, that in no way indicates any admission of liability in the case. As the matter is currently before the courts, the department wouldn’t comment further.

The dark history of the Whitbourne detention centre, according to the case allegations, includes a 1956 inquiry that failed to fault staff, despite a subsequent 1957 conviction of a veterinarian who lived on the grounds of the facility revealing that he had been abusing boys. 

Moore said the boys were sent to the veterinarian when they were hurt and he masturbated them, claiming he needed their semen samples to test if they were really sick or not.

In 1956, a priest had written to then-premier Joseph Smallwood and threatened to go public if reports of abuse were not acted on, prompting the inquiry that eventually concluded no sexual wrongdoing on the part of staff, but immoral behaviour among the boys, Moore said.

"All these boys are being abused while the inquiry is happening, but the inquiry doesn’t uncover it,” Moore said.

The lawyers say there were instances of repeated naked beatings in the 1960s, despite a government policy that indicated appropriate corporal punishment of the day was no more than five hits of a leather strap on the hand.

Complaints made by the public and on open-line programs in the 1970s often revolved around confusing “rampant homosexuality” at Whitbourne for what should have been termed child abuse, Moore said.

A government lawyer and civil servant were sent to investigate and they concluded once again there was activity between the boys, but no sexual abuse by staff, Moore said. However, documents revealed a later conviction, she said.

Another inquiry in the 1980s flagged grave concerns. And the Hughes Inquiry — struck after the scandal of sexual abuse at the infamous Christian Brothers-run Mount Cashel boys’ orphanage — heard from a civil servant who testified she was told not to produce information related to overtime restrictions at Whitbourne to a judge presiding over an inquiry into the death of a boy who had run away from the facility and perished, Moore said.

Moore, echoing comments made by commissioner Samuel Hughes about the Mount Cashel scandal, said the government and civil servants for decades had an appetite for concealment.

To be ruled through the class action is whether the provincial government had adequate procedures that would protect against sexual abuse, whether there was adequate training for staff and residents, and whether the provincial government fraudulently concealed knowledge that there was sexual abuse, Moore said. 

“Our argument is that the facts clearly demonstrate it did not have these children in mind when they were developing their policies,” Moore said.

The class action begins at 1973, because older cases would involve different litigation due to changes in procedures for suing the provincial government and those older cases could be handled in a separate action, as they have a different legal standing, Moore explained.

“Our argument is that the facts clearly demonstrate it did not have these children in mind when they were developing their policies." — Moore

The class action alleges sexual abuses were committed by employees, priests and sometimes older children. 

Sexual abuse, by its definition, can range from molestation, rape, beatings while naked and detention while naked. 

The litigation moves into a notice period for any others who may have been at the centres and claim abuse. Once that period is up, the case will move on to either trial or settlement. 

There’s a pool of about 1,200 people who went through the institutions.

It’s not yet known how many abuse claimants there might be, but there are already 60 people who have come forward. 

Eighty-five per cent of those who have come forward so far are men, and 15 per cent are women. 

When the firm first went public with the case, it made a plea for women to come forward.

“We know that the rates for sexual assault against women are significantly higher than the rates of sexual assaults for men,” Moore said.

“We believe there are more women out there who have not come forward yet.”

It’s alleged, for instance, that a Whitbourne staff member housed girls escaping Whitbourne at an apartment, where they were sexually abused by a variety of men.

The class action stops at 1989 because most victims who pursue legal action tend to be in their 40s or 50s, and younger victims may not be ready to come forward yet, Moore said. 


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