Sask. church failed to report sexual abuse: Victims

Saskatoon StarPhoenix, Canada/October 20, 2008

Sakatoon - Two women who were sexually abused in their adolescence by a trusted older relative say elders of the small-town Jehovah's Witness church in which they were raised did not report the situation to police after he admitted touching them inappropriately during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

"We were left to endure years of guilt and shame," one of the women wrote in a victim-impact statement read aloud by Crown prosecutor Krista Zerr during the man's sentencing hearing in Saskatoon Court of Queen's Bench on Monday.

"I felt like damaged goods."

Due to a publication ban on information that could identify the victims, the convicted man's name cannot be published. He pleaded guilty to two counts of sexual assault earlier this year, on what was supposed to be the first day of his trial. In exchange, the Crown dropped charges of sexual interference and sexual touching, as well as a charge related to a male complainant.

Both victims, now ages 31 and 32, testified against the man at an earlier preliminary hearing. They did not attend court Monday. Justice Neil Gabrielson reserved his decision on the man's sentence until Nov. 21.

The two women grew up in a town of about 500 people, east of Saskatoon, and were not allowed to associate with anyone outside their religion, except during school hours, court heard. They frequently spent time at the home of the older relative and his wife, who were church members in their early 20s at the time.

"We trusted them, as Witness families would," the victims' father told the preliminary hearing, according to Zerr. "We assumed (the girls) were in a safe environment."

During one such visit, the man's wife suggested the girls allow him to give them "oil massages," Zerr said. One of the victims, who was 13 or 14 years old at the time, told court the massage involved lying face-down on the couple's bed with the door closed, naked from the waist up. It ended with him fondling her breasts repeatedly.

Her sister testified the man touched her breasts and vagina on several occasions when she was at the couple's home, starting when she was 12 years old.

The girls were given vodka to drink on some of their visits, and were invited more than once to try on pieces of lingerie belonging to the man's wife, who sold it as a source of income, court heard.

After telling each other about the abuse, the two sisters informed their parents. Their father confronted the man, who did not confirm or deny what had happened, and the matter was subsequently reported to church elders, Zerr said.

"There was no report to the police at that time."

Instead, the man received a lecture from the elders, and many in the community rallied around him because he regularly attended church meetings - while the girls were "treated like troublemakers" and encouraged to let the whole thing go, one of the victims wrote.

Their father and their abuser later became "dear friends, and would go for coffee daily," a situation which continues to this day, she added.

"We were trash-talked and slandered throughout the community . . . the religion abandoned us."

The Crown is seeking a jail sentence of two years less a day - which means the man will likely avoid a penitentiary term - while defence lawyer John Will argued Monday for a conditional sentence to be served at home.

Will gave the court several character references in his client's favour, signed by fellow church members and others, including the town's mayor.

Aside from "some serious mistakes many years ago," the man has led an "exemplary" life, Will said.

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