Jul 21/98: Healing circles protested


Victoria Times Colonist
July 21, 1998, p. A3
Susan Danard

[S.I.S.I.S. note: The following mainstream news article may contain biased or distorted information and may be missing pertinent facts and/or context. It is provided for reference only.]

A healing circle that enabled a Roman Catholic bishop - accused of raping an aboriginal woman - to avoid a new trial could deter other victims from seeking justice, women warn. "The healing circle diminishes the impact of sexual abuse and physical violence against women and children," Viola Thomas, president of the United Native Nations, said Monday. "I think it states that as aboriginal women we don't mean anything to this government."

Thomas was one of about 70 women of all cultures who gathered on the legislature's lawn Monday for a traditional native grieving ceremony to protest the recent healing circle involving Bishop Hubert O'Connor. O'Connor, 71 and now living in a cleric's retreat in Duncan, was found guilty of rape and indecent assault in 1996 for offences that occurred when he was principal of a native residential school in Williams Lake more than 30 years ago. The highest ranking Roman Catholic official in Canada ever to be convicted of a sex crime, O'Connor was sentenced to 2-1/2 years. He was later acquitted on the indecent assault charge and the rape charge was dropped after one woman involved, the RCMP and the Attorney General 's Ministry agreed to the healing circle to avoid further tangling the case in court.

But woman are angry that O'Connor has never admitted to the sexual abuse. They worry healing circles could become an easy way for offenders to circumvent the justice system, minimizing the trauma of victims. "This decision will push the rights of aboriginal women back many years. There are many disclosures (of sexual abuse) that will not come forward now," said Debra Bell, sexual assault co-ordinator of the Women of our People Society, a Saanichton agency that helps native women. The Victoria Women's Sexual Assault Centre worries the O'Connor case will be precendent setting. "This is a major breach of all that good faith (with the Attorney General's Ministry). It's horrifying for us," said Susan Dayton, a case manager with the centre.

In an interview, the attorney general stressed that the O'Connor case was unusual and should not be considered a weakening of the government's resolve to prosecute sexual offenders. "These were exceptional circumstances in which there had been two trials and an appeal and where the man had served some time," Ujjal Dosanjh said. The grieving protest was an emotional ceremony that lasted for more than an hour, with woman after woman speaking of unspeakable horrors - drug abuse, sex crimes and suicide, most linked to the speakers' experiences with residential schools. "So many times we have been re-victimized," said a trembling Kelly Cook, a Kwaguilth woman, who was abused while in foster care in Victoria. "We do not accept this... We are tired of standing at the gravesides of our people who have given up."

Elizabeth Cook, of the Victoria Native Friendship Centre, said her mother was sexually abused in a church-run residential school and had no one to turn to. She later died of a drug overdose. I'm here today because I want women to understand that we do not believe them now. It's only by speaking up and having courage that you are believed and the perpetrators are stopped." "The government used the churches to brainwash us in residential schools. That's the reason for the residential schools and that's the reason for the sexual abuse - to destroy our spirit. Well, we have survived," raged Harriet Nahanee, of the Pacheeda First Nation. "I don't forgive them. No one should." The healing ceremony is a model of restorative justice imported to British Columbia from Manitoba, where the circles were initiated as an alternative corrections measure for the disproportionate number of aboriginal people filling up the jails.

"It's like a weapon that's been turned around on us," said Dorris Peters, an elder with the United Native Nations.

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