Globe and Mail

When the accused is the victim

By MARGARET WENTE
Globe and Mail
Tuesday, October 3, 2000

For 15 years, John Caldwell worked as a counsellor at Nova Scotia's School for Boys in Shelburne. Shelburne is a pretty little town but the school was sometimes a rough place, full of young truants and thieves and other kids we used to call juvenile delinquents. In the 1980s, he honourably retired. He and his wife, now in their 70s, planned to spend their golden years relaxing and enjoying their grandchildren.

Four weeks ago, the RCMP arrived at Mr. Caldwell's house. For seven hours, they grilled him about abusive acts he is alleged to have committed against Shelburne residents more than two decades ago -- allegations that, without benefit of proof, have already netted the accusers rich settlements paid out by a panicky Nova Scotia government. Mr. Caldwell was shaken, but his humiliating ordeal wasn't over. As soon as the Mounties left, a child-protection worker swooped in unannounced. He wanted to know the names and ages of Mr. Caldwell's grandchildren and how often he saw them. A few days later, he interviewed Mr. Caldwell's grandson at school. Then he declared that Mr. Caldwell is too dangerous to be alone with the boy any more.

"Dad is heartbroken," says Mr. Caldwell's daughter.

Mr. Caldwell asked for his name to be changed in order to shield his family. The boy has seen his grandfather several times a week all his life, and cried when he was told the news. "My father is a broken man," says his daughter. "How can they do this?"

An internal investigation commissioned by Nova Scotia's own Justice Department concluded, after a four-year probe, that the vast majority of abuse allegations in the Shelburne scandal are bogus -- fabrications intended for financial gain. The official response has been to throw all the resources of the state against the wrongly accused.

The government refused to release the internal report, which is thought to include a detailed examination of many of the charges. (Parts of its summary were made public last month.) The RCMP, which some years ago launched a special investigation ironically called Operation Hope to bring the abusers to justice, redoubled its efforts. Operation Hope now appears to be a desperate attempt to uncover evidence -- any evidence -- of abuse. And now the child-protection service has teamed up with the RCMP to prevent dangerous offenders like Mr. Caldwell (against whom there is not one criminal charge) from molesting again.

"They told us there were many and serious allegations against my father, that my child was male, and that he was reaching the same age as the accusers when they say it happened," his daughter told me.

The Caldwell family haven't given an answer yet to the child-protection service. It says it will take them to court to enforce its request, and they're hiring a lawyer to represent their son. The child-protection service may also request the courts to have Mr. Caldwell added to the child-abuse register.

It's been clear for quite a while now that the Mounties and the government are chasing the wrong men. Perhaps they ought to be chasing a few of the 1,237 men (many of whom are career criminals) who walked away with $39-million in settlement money without having to prove a thing. But that would reveal the embarrassing truth -- which is that Shelburne was not a case of massive institutional child abuse, but a case of massive fraud engineered by credulous bureaucrats and opportunistic politicians.

Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of innocent men are caught in the net. They include Wayne Butler, another former Shelburne worker who was also questioned by the Mounties last month over abuses that allegedly occurred in

1985. His accuser said Mr. Butler had split his chin open and that the wound had been stitched up by the staff nurse, even though, as Mr. Butler points out, stitches were always done by doctors at the hospital. Mr. Butler was also grilled on allegations of sexual abuse. He explained that he had already passed a government polygraph test, but the Mounties asked him to take another.

Over the past six years, Mr. Butler says he's been investigated at least five different times. He, too, was quizzed by the child-protection workers, who wanted to determine whether he posed a threat to his two grandchildren. He was lucky. They decided he didn't.

"The Justice Department and Operation Hope have made my life and that of my family a living hell for six years," he says. "This should be a wake-up call for those who have direct contact with young children, be it teachers, nursery school workers, doctors, or Big Brothers. Anyone out there is a target. With this investigation, which staff are going to be token abusers so as to make this whole investigation appear to have been conducted properly?"

And which grandfathers, having already lost their dignity and their good names, will also lose the right to walk their own grandchildren to school?

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