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Former students allege psychological, physical and sexual abuse at Ont. Christian school
BROCKVILLE, ONT - The school yearbooks and glossy brochures all show images of beaming students getting a good Christian education. And in promotional videos, student after student offers up glowing testimonials, especially about their teachers.
According to the brochures, students attending Grenville Christian College would find academic excellence. Sports. And the Arts. “Educating the whole person in body, mind and spirit.”
But a CTV W5 investigation has found that Grenville, once an elite private boarding school on the banks of the St. Lawrence River, has a dark past.
For hundreds of former students, the school, which now sits empty having closed its doors in 2007, is a place haunted with painful memories.
W5 spoke with several alumni who recounted disturbing stories about their years at the school and the abuses they suffered – allegations of physical, sexual and psychological abuse during the 1970s, '80s and '90s.
Mark Vincent attended Grenville in the '70s. “Probably the worst memory, they beat the crap out of me with a desk top to the point where I couldn’t stand, because God told them to do it to me.”
Standing at the edge of the property, Jacqueline Thomas could barely look up at the sprawling campus. She was a student in the '90s. “This is the first time I’ve been here in 22 years. I’m trying really hard not to cry. But I feel sick. I’m terrified.”
With a Grenville brochure in hand, Andrew Hale-Byrne recalled his family’s search for a school and thinking they’d found a place like the finest boarding schools in his native United Kingdom.
“My mother commented that it looked better than most country clubs she’d seen. It was beautiful. It was actually breathtaking,” Andrew said.
But soon after arriving at the school, he witnessed first-hand the dark side.
“One thing that stuck out in my mind and I found this particularly disturbing from the very first moment I witnessed it was the public humiliations in the chapel and the dining room where they (the headmaster and teachers) would drag a student onto the stage and that person would be ripped apart, humiliated, shamed in front of the entire student body.”
What Andrew found troubling was that the brochure promised “love and Christian teaching,” but, he says, they got neither.
“They took Christianity which is a religion of love which was my experience of growing up Anglican and they inverted it into a cult of hate.”
“I was told that in order to be loved by God I had to pass through the light and that involved going through what they called a ‘light session’ which is one of these public humiliations. And you had to die to self they said in order to be loved by God, and that involved hating yourself,” Andrew explained.
“After two years of being there I came to believe that I was garbage, filth, trash. We were told ‘God hates you. God doesn’t love you. You’re damned.’ And I came to just normalize this.”
Andrew has written a book about his experiences, which is available online.
Dan Michielsen entered Grenville in 1985 in grade 10. He described himself as a happy go lucky 15-year-old but all that changed within a couple of weeks with a rude awakening.
Dan recalled being dragged out of bed along with other boys in the dormitory in the middle of the night by staff. “Lights would be turned on and we were berated and screamed at for being sinful boys.”
Sinful boys, but the girls were singled out by headmaster Charles Farnsworth and other staff for far more degrading attacks simply because they were female.
Sheila Coons recalled the headmaster seeing her as the Devil incarnate.
“He would say that I had a devil inspired body and that I was tempting men by my devil inspired body. He compared me to Lucifer because at the time I was blonde and Lucifer apparently had blonde hair.”
According to Sheila and confirmed by other former students W5 interviewed, Farnsworth often accused girls of inviting sexual attention.
“Father Farnworth took me into the Vestry and told me that I was a whore and I looked like a whore and I had really no alternative in life but to be a whore,” Sheila said.
“We were told that women are responsible for anything sexual, for turning men on, turning boys on, that men just looked at us as pieces of meat. And if a woman got raped that was her fault. She was a temptress as Eve was a temptress, as Jezebel was a temptress and then the list goes on.”
Farnworth’s tirades about women may have hidden his own lust.
“He would call me up to his office frequently, take me out of class and tell me what an awful, sinful creature I was.
“On this one occasion he stood up, pressed his body against mine. He said, ‘you smell good’ and he clenched me to him and he put his mouth on my neck and licked it and he pressed his hips up against mine.
“At the time I thought he was obsessed with me. I found out later that he was doing it to other girls as well.”
Today, these students are grown up but they still feel the pain, and are now part of a $200-million lawsuit – a class action – on behalf of hundreds of former boarding school students, claiming systemic abuse and bizarre religious practices at the hands of Grenville staff, especially Father Charles Farnsworth.
Farnsworth’s version of what went on at Grenville may never be fully known. He died in March 2015. But former students had already launched their class action against the school by this time.
Farnsworth came to the school in 1972 and by 1983 he was named headmaster, a position he held for the next 14 years. What students likely didn’t know back then was that he and other staff members were disciples of an American group called the Community of Jesus based in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
Reports by U.S. news media beginning in the 1980s described the group as a cult which practiced communal living and extreme rituals, particularly when it came to disciplining each other.
As a devout follower, Farnsworth applied the teachings of the Community of Jesus at Grenville on unsuspecting students.
Before his death, Farnsworth wrote about the allegations in a document obtained by W5. “The whole reason for being in our mission was to bring these people into the realm of the Christ ….”
Farnsworth added: ‘We have been accused of many things that I never knew of and never heard of … But I honestly think some of the people have gone delusional. Some of the things they said happened, some of the accusations of sexual abuse by me, they just didn’t happen.”
Many former Grenville staff also vigorously deny the allegations put forward in the lawsuit.
However, Joan Childs, a former teacher and administrator at the school, as well as a follower of the Community of Jesus and one of Farnsworth’s inner circle, told W5 that the students are telling the truth.
“They aren’t exaggerating. They aren’t making these things up. As sad as it is, these things happened.”
She has apologized for what was done to students at the school while she was there.
Victor Malarek is an investigative reporter with W5. His documentary In the Name of God can be seen on CTV’s W5 Saturday at 7 pm.