Class-action lawsuit alleges systemic abuse at defunct private Christian school

A group of former students are set to take the private Christian school they attended to court next week, alleging in a class-action lawsuit that they were subjected to psychological abuse designed to erode their sense of safety.

The certified class action, which has spent more than a decade winding its way through the legal system, will see five plaintiffs represent former residential students who attended Grenville Christian College in Brockville, Ont., between 1973 and 1997.

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"The conduct of the defendants ... was calculated to produce harm and did, in fact, produce physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual harms," the students' statement of claim reads. "The defendants fostered an atmosphere of fear, intimidation, anxiety and suspicion."

The plaintiffs are suing the school and the estates of two of its former headmasters — Charles Farnsworth, who died in 2015, and J. Alastair Haig, who died in 2009 — along with some family members who also worked at the school for $200 million in damages for allegedly breaching their duty to take care of the students.

The students allege they were cut off from communicating with their families, kept under constant surveillance and subjected to "exorcisms" and so-called "light sessions."

"Students were forced to confess sins, real or imagined, as the individual defendants and other staff members challenged and/or screamed at the students," the statement of claim says. "Students were compelled to confess imagined sins and to betray other students."

Several students also alleged they were beaten with wooden paddles. The allegations have not been proven in court.

The students were permanently affected by their treatment at the school, the court document said. Many of them still have poor self-esteem and difficulty trusting people.

"For the plaintiffs and many of the class members, it's about holding the school to account and making the public aware of child abuse to the view of preventing similar things in the future," said Loretta Merritt, one of the lawyers representing the students.

In its statement of defence, lawyers for the school said students weren't cut off from their families and denied the allegations of exorcism and light sessions, saying that while some students were occasionally subjected to "corporal punishment in the form of a paddle," it was only for the most serious breaches.

The statement of defence says most students had a great experience at Grenville, which shut down in 2007.

"Most certainly there would have been students over the years who experienced unhappiness from time to time at Grenville or who felt anxious or perceived that they were suffering humiliation. These, however, are ordinary human feelings," the statement reads.

"They were not the product of any negligent or deliberate infliction of mental suffering on the part of the plaintiffs."

Geoffrey Adair, a lawyer for the defendants, said the difference between students' experiences is practically irreconcilable.

"Some people present a picture of Grenville as a very rigid, harsh, abusive culture. Others think Grenville was an amazingly positive experience," he said. "A court is going to have to decide which vision, if you will, or which view, is the fact and which is fiction."

The statement of defence also notes the amount of time that had elapsed since the alleged abuse.

At the time that the lawsuit was initially filed in 2008, there was a time limit on reporting allegations of child abuse. Eight years later, while the case was inching forward in the legal system, Ontario changed its laws to eliminate the limit in those cases.

But Adair notes that the amount of time that's passed does still have an effect on the case — some things, such as corporal punishment, were more acceptable forty years ago than they are now.

The courts, he noted, must look at the standards at the time.

The initial class action also named the Anglican Diocese of Ontario as a defendant, because Farnsworth and Haig were ordained Anglican ministers and the school presented itself as Anglican.

The diocese argued that in spite of those facts, the school was not officially affiliated with the religious institution, and the case against it was dropped.

The trial is set to begin Monday if no settlement is reached by then.

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