The recent death of Neil Reynolds, one-time editor of the Kingston Whig-Standard, reminded me of what a hero he was during one of the hardest times in my life – when I knew I had to go down and picket a cathedral. At that time I believed that churches had a monopoly on God; that He could not be found anywhere else. So by picketing, I was going up against the Almighty on His home turf.
It was a real dilemma. On March 7, 1990 I had been writing a national column in The Anglican Journal for some 20 years. My boys had been in the choir at St. George’s Cathedral when they were younger, so I was galvanized to discover a front-page story in the Whig saying the choirmaster had been charged with sexual abuse.
Two years went by. Now the church was perceived as hushing all this up while being pressed for answers. Was I going to sit back and let other parents do the hard public work of demanding from parish leadership a full inquiry, an apology and continued counselling for the victims?
I’d always felt I’d been given my column for some particular purpose. After all these years, the rent had suddenly come due. If I marched down there with Howard Pyle’s drawing of St. George and the Dragon [of Sexual Assault] on my picket sign. I would be using that profile to take a stand.
But it wouldn’t be for long, I told myself. Because of the column, the cathedral would surely trust me. Undoubtedly we could just sit down and talk the thing out. Maybe they simply didn’t realize how serious all this was. My going down there would be a gesture of support, a one-time thing for whoever showed up.
As I put my sign together I felt happy about the fact that it would just be a single Sunday morning, though it was a time I would normally have been in church. As I was putting my sign together, my husband came over. “Where’s my sign?” he asked.
“I didn’t make you one,” I said, confused. Going through heavy stress, he had just been put on disability for PTSD after being stabbed in the prison where he worked. All he needed to top that off was a confrontational Sunday from a picket line of the inexperienced.
“Anyway, it doesn’t matter. It will all be over with today,” I added.
“You think?” he said. His beard twitched as he looked over my collection of Escher graphics. Then he selected one of stone stairs curving down into darkness. “I’ll use this,” he said and began lettering: “What Else Is Still Hidden Inside The Cathedral?”
“And don’t use that old golf club handle,” he told me, over his shoulder. “They’ll take it as a threat.”
I peeled St. George off the club, sighing. “All right,” I said. Thank goodness this was only going to be one morning out of my life – memorable, probably, but an isolated incident.
How wrong can one woman be?
Behind all this was a complete lack of information. Not just on my part. There had been sexual abuse of the choirboys, the paper kept saying. I had never heard of that ever happening to anyone before. No newspapers that I had ever read had reported on a topic like that. I was a bookseller and prolific reader, yet I’d never seen any magazine articles or books on the subject.
It turned out that few of the parents knew much more than I did, though a good share of them were professors at Queen’s. We scrounged around for material but all that anyone could find was a small booklet from the federal government on child sexual abuse, written by a social worker named Mary Wells.
The rise of the Internet had just begun. The spread of information was still to come, with the consequent reporting of every sordid occurrence, in graphic detail, of abuse in every form. But that was still years away.
I had gotten a degree in theology while living at a religious institution that might as well have been a nunnery. Reading only the Bible and related materials, I had then run a hostel for teenage runaways, later a group home for troubled teens, and never once had any social worker or anyone else ever suggested that the root cause of their problems might be sexual abuse.
“Nice women don’t know about that sort of thing,” a friend reproved me. “Do you want people to think the worst of you?”
“But it happened in the cathedral. Some of these boys killed themselves!” I said, but she just shook her head and pointed out that the standards of civilization consist of keeping mum about nasty matters while sweeping them all permanently out of sight under a very thick carpet.
Family newspapers were still holding back when Neil Reynolds put the story on the front page of the Kingston Whig-Standard, with the arrest of the choirmaster, and kept it there nearly three years till a solution came to town in the shape of Mary Wells, the writer of the pamphlet.
There would be no polite silence on the topic of child sexual abuse in his town.
And the dam burst. Suddenly talk of sexual abuse flooded the media. It existed in churches, orphanages, training schools, Scout troops, sports facilities … In fact, it was and had been anywhere adults and children come together unsupervised. Priests and choirmasters immediately became cliches.
My hopes of sorting anything out over coffee came to a crashing halt that first Sunday morning when the cathedral made it plain they weren’t interested. During the weeks and then months that followed, it seemed as though Kingston had split right down the middle. Articles, photos and letters to the editor took up the major share of space in the paper every day, eventually resulting in national newspaper awards for the reporters involved.
Far from a one-time thing, every Sunday morning after that, along with many others, we went dutifully down to the cathedral steps, our signs changing with the revelations that came out. The choirmaster had received four and a half years but got time off for good behaviour. What happened at the cathedral was no longer just about him. Many people stopped off at my bookshop to fill me in on what they knew.
I began to identify who they were by the way they would look around to be sure the shop was empty before they began to talk. By the time we’d been picketing three months, my life had changed forever. All anyone could talk about was what was happening. I’d even stopped reading, which was like stopping breathing for me. When would this be over?
My sons had been seven and 10 during their short tenure in the choir. While they were in it, I had asked a few innocent questions about the choirmaster, with a view to interviewing him for my column. Suddenly both boys were no longer welcome to sing there. While this had confused me, looking back I thought perhaps it meant they hadn’t suffered the abuse like others.
“Yes, that’s right,” they told me in their 20s. Nothing like that had gone on.
But there were noticeable problems in their lives, especially the youngest, who was abusing every substance he could get his hands on, deeply unhappy despite short-lived attempts at therapy and every helping professional we could find.
Going down, deeper with every stumble, he died on a cold November day alone with an active addiction. He was 42. With our record of family longevity, he could have expected another 40 years in a better world. But after the choir, dark was the only colour in the world around him.
The oldest fainted in a workshop when CBC’s film The Choirmaster was being shown. He had shoved memories to the back of his mind. Now he had to deal with what had gone on. Today he is a social worker.
It took all those years before they could no longer stuff their stories back inside. If it hadn’t been for the Whig faithfully reporting every detail, despite constant pressure to leave the subject alone, things could have been very different for our family. Having a place to discuss what went on probably kept more young men alive than anyone will ever know.
I always think of Neil when I hear the slogan “sunlight is the best disinfectant.” His courage and sense of justice were at the heart of solving and gradually healing the pain that ached through all of Kingston, even after the hard-won apology was read out at the cathedral one gloomy Sunday, Feb. 28, 1993, candles lit and flickering in banks of snow outside.
This all happened an entire generation ago. I like to think that, slowly, up from the muck and debris that surrounded the horror of that abuse into the sunlight of full disclosure, others have come to find peace and meaning in their lives again.
Still, I know in my heart that not all the stories have been told. Perhaps by telling mine today, one more person may come to understand.
Rose DeShaw is a member of the Whig-Standard’s Community Editorial Board.