On Dec 8, the Toronto Police Service held a press conference to announce that 57 people had been arrested and charged in connection with an international child pornography investigation dubbed Project Sanctuary.
On Dec 9, one of those charged, York University professor Richard Dyde, committed suicide.
It’s obviously unreasonable to argue that children in peril ought not to be championed, but there are a few things going on in this story that need pointing out.
Among the charges enumerated by Toronto Police on Dec 8, only one is for sexual assault. Most of the others are for accessing, possession, distribution or making available child porn. It’s very possible that none of those charged in Canada ever touched a child. These are largely accusations of crimes of thought and communication, not of assault. And thoughts and representations are poor bases for assessing criminality.
There is virtually no way for the public to scrutinize the conduct of police in this investigation or the validity of the charges. Publication bans intended to protect victims also prevent a meaningful grasp of the subtlety and nuance of these cases. When police say they’ve laid charges, media sensationalizes, names are named, much is assumed, reputations are forever stained and stigma is assigned. But when charges are dropped, or wrists gently slapped, it rarely makes the papers. A public, prone to hysteria when the victimization of young people is at issue, is called upon to invest blind trust in the criminal justice system. People are apt to assume the worst and are rarely given any reason to believe otherwise.
Similar sexual morality crusades have spawned appalling miscarriages of justice. Hundreds of charges were laid, mostly against gay men, in London, Ontario, in the early 1990s as part of Project Guardian. There was a huge media frenzy, a years-long witch hunt, even a suicide or two. But in the end it was all nonsense. Virtually none of the charges stuck, and the lives of dozens of gay men were destroyed.
The story of Project Truth in Cornwall, Ontario, is eerily similar. It dragged on for 14 years with tales of orgiastic ritual victimization conducted by otherwise trusted citizens. It turned out to be complete fiction, but the damage was done, and the lives of many of the accused were forever destroyed.
Remember also the case of David Dewees. He threw himself under a Toronto subway train last year. It was after the Toronto Star reported erroneously that he had been charged with sexual assault. Xtra’s investigation revealed him to be a popular teacher and camp counsellor. He made some startlingly poor choices that ultimately hurt no one but himself. Nobody ever accused him of touching anyone, or even trying to. He lost his career, his reputation and, sadly, chose to forfeit his life.
On Dec 13, I, along with 11 others — university professors, activists and writers — signed an open letter of concern.
“The public identification and shaming of these men, before any court process, is an intolerable injustice of which Richard Dyde is only the most recent victim,” it reads.
You can read the complete text, and add your name to the list of signatories, by joining the Facebook group, Citizens Concerned about Project Sanctuary.