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Anglicans Online last updated 11 August 2019
review for Anglicans Online
A review of
Grenville is the personal memoir of a student of Grenville Christian College (GCC), a private boarding and day school located in Maitland, Ontario, on the St. Lawrence River, from 1973-2007, and informally related to the Anglican Diocese of Ontario. Hale-Byrne attended the school for two years in the 1990s, and recounts major tales of psychological, physical and, to a lesser extent, sexual abuse, having passed the latter over to the police who have re-opened criminal proceedings. The author was a key player in enabling journalist Michael Valpy to make public the abuse at the College in the Toronto Globe and Mail in 2007. The disclosure resulted in the College’s very quick demise.
Hale-Byrne is also one of the representative plaintiffs in the Grenville Christian College Class Action and its press officer. As such, the book contains, in addition to his own allegations, many statements prepared by former students and staff for the class action which is working its way through the Ontario courts. Thus, the book is not so much a coherent and polished memoir as a (sometimes not very well edited) primary source document of the alleged abuses. It is a disheartening document. I see no reason to doubt the truth of the stories told here, whatever one thinks of some of the commentary.
The root of the problem seems to have been the school’s relation with the Cape Cod-based neo-monastic Community of Jesus (COJ) and its two controversial founders, Cay Andersen and Judy Sorensen. Allegedly, at the height of COJ involvement with the school, all the faculty were members of the Community, led by the Headmaster, Charles Farnsworth, and many of the financial resources of the school channeled to the COJ, especially as the school had high tuition fees, staff worked for minimal pay and all school maintenance was done by the students. The Community’s harsh disciplinary practices were imposed (erratically) on staff and students in the College.
In his short cynical chapter on the Community, Hale-Byrne alleges that the COJ was a “cult” and, on that basis, was refused affiliation with the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts. The Community continues to exist, and has over 200 members (married couples, families and celibates). It has apparently acquired wealth and respectability with a large church (Transfiguration) patterned after a fourth-century basilica and internationally-known choir and theatre groups. Though still very Anglican in ethos, there is no indication that the Community has any affiliation with the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, seeing itself as ecumenical.
Headmaster Charles Farnsworth’s behaviour was particularly problematic in his treatment of female students and staff. For example, he forbade even married staff couples to discuss sex with one other and harshly punished any suspected romance between students, though in both cases was eager to counsel the women and girls concerned privately and in close proximity. The harshest abuse seems to have been directed to students with physical or mental disabilities (the author identifies himself as dyslexic), seeing these as signs of sins to be driven out. There was much literal belief in Satan and demons to explain students’ sexual behaviour and exorcisms were common. However, other students were untouched by abuse and many were unaware of what was going on. School staff maintained strict control of information going out of the school and any attempt at exposure met with legal threat.
The COJ and GCC came to be associated with the Anglican Diocese of Ontario through its eighth bishop (1975-81), Henry Gordon Hill, a shy celibate scholar of Orthodoxy and supporter of women’s religious communities, who was attracted to the neo-monastic ethos of the COJ and its two women founders. He welcomed the Community’s involvement with the College. (The author argues that he and Ontario diocese provided the COJ the Anglican validation they could not get from the Episcopal Church.) Hill became a frequent visitor to GCC and the College declared its Anglican identity through institution of Anglican worship, raising an Anglican Church of Canada flag, a mass Confirmation of College students and staff, and building a large chapel.
(One the other hand, the author’s listing of many prominent external visitors, Anglican and otherwise, to the school and seeming to blame them for the abuse is a bit disingenuous since there was no inkling of problems at the school at the time. I realized I might well have visited the school in those years if they were interested in overseas mission. It must be said that the author’s wounds and bitterness shape some of the narrative.)
Eventually, Hill, despite protests from the diocese, ordained Charles Farnsworth an Anglican priest, though he lacked any theological training or even a university degree. There was apparently little canonical process or examination. According to Hale-Byrne, because of the ordination’s irregularity, the permission of the Metropolitan, Archbishop Lewis Garnsworthy, was needed and given.
While subsequent bishops of Ontario (Reed, Mason and Bruce) continued to visit the school, license ordained staff, serve on the College’s board and offer pastoral support, there was never any canonical, legal or fiduciary relation between the College and the diocese, which ultimately enabled the diocese to be exempt when legal action by abused students and staff began. Hale-Byrne deeply resents the diocese’s stance here: its willingness to share the credit when all seemed well but effectively running away and taking no responsibility for providing support to the victims when the abuse finally became public. Before its removal as a defendant in the class action suit, according to the author, the diocese even threatened a countersuit against the plaintiffs’ parents for enrolling their children in the school, to cover any expected loss.
The Anglican Church of Canada has taken full responsibility, issued apologies and offered generous reparations in the case of Indian residential schools because the schools were run by the church’s missionary society albeit on behalf of the government. One diocese, Cariboo in British Columbia, went bankrupt in the process. Where the national church or dioceses’ responsibility is not so clear, as in the Grenville case, often the church institution, fearing bankruptcy, has taken the strictly legal route, leaving victims disappointed. Is this a fair approach by the church, and in the case, the Diocese of Ontario? Is there some way the institutions of the church might still be friends to the victims?
This volume is not a history, rather the cry of a victim. A proper history of the College might look at the correspondence between Bishop Hill and the Community of Jesus, the various events and relationships in detail that constituted the relationship between the College and the diocese, the correspondence (especially with the Metropolitan) about Farnsworth’s irregular ordination and (much later) accusations of abuse apparently made to Bishop Mason that were not aggressively acted upon. Bishop Hill was not a devious man; he was perhaps quite naïve, especially in matters sexual, but he overruled the canonical structures meant to protect himself as a bishop. Nor were subsequent bishops malicious. Mason dealt squarely with a horrific long-standing sexual abuse case involving the organist at St. George’s Cathedral, Kingston, and avoided by his predecessor; perhaps another case less dramatic was too much for him. Yet it is sad that the diocese cannot in some way admit it might have had some moral responsibility for the whole mess (through the decisions of its leaders, if nothing else) even if legally off the hook. Bishop Bruce eventually removed Charles Farnsworth’s license but made no effort to defrock him. Farnsworth died in 2015, after which more abuse allegations came out.
I believe the book is worth reading, as the cry of the victim of bad theology operating under the umbrella an institution of Anglican ethos having institutional Anglican support; as a challenge to further and deeper Christian ethical reflection on these often very bizarre situations of faith-sanctioned abuse; and as a challenge to how we might continue to stand with the victims rather than the institutions, even if that is costly to the latter.