Long-running, $40M inquiry into handling of Ont. sex abuse allegations near an end

After nearly four years, some 180 witnesses and $40 million in taxpayer dollars, a public inquiry struck in the shadow of sensational but unproven allegations that a clandestine pedophile ring once operated in eastern Ontario will draw to a close this week.

The Cornwall inquiry into how police and other institutions responded to allegations of historic sexual abuse -- which made national headlines when the former police officer at the heart of probe was jailed for refusing to testify -- will begin hearing final submissions Monday.

It's a landmark in a sad saga that has many expressing hope that some good may come for both abuse victims and the community. Others question what kind of resolution, if any, the report to be delivered in July will bring.

While the inquiry's work addressed Cornwall-specific issues, such as agency responses and rumours of collusion to cover up abuse, there are also general issues about how institutions handle such allegations, said lead commission counsel Peter Engelmann.

"We're hopeful that many lessons can be learned from the report that is finally written," Engelmann said in an interview. "This report should have value far beyond the city of Cornwall and its environs."

The latest figures from the Ministry of the Attorney General show that $40,814,338 had been spent on the inquiry as of Dec. 31.

Some aren't convinced that's money well spent.

"This report could be the most expensive doorstop known to mankind," said Claude McIntosh, a columnist for the Cornwall Standard-Freeholder.

McIntosh said he's skeptical about how much use the community can get out of a report into how public institutions responded in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s, noting that practices governing how abuse allegations are dealt with have since changed.

"I always said it was like doing a safety report on a 1967 Chevy, trying to compare it to today's vehicles," McIntosh said.

The main value of the inquiry is the support sex abuse victims have received, McIntosh added.

The inquiry's mandate was not to examine the alleged pedophile ring. A provincial police probe, dubbed Project Truth, saw police lay 114 charges against 15 men in the 1990s, but no evidence of an organized, backroom clan was ever found.

Still, allegations of high-profile officials, professionals and clergy taking part in bizarre sexual rituals hung over the proceedings.

One of the inquiry's watershed moments came last summer during the testimony of Ron Leroux, who had told former Cornwall police officer Perry Dunlop he witnessed a clan of pedophiles who wore robes, burned candles and sexually abused young boys during weekend meetings in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Last June, Leroux told the inquiry that he fabricated the story.

Dunlop, for his part, refused to testify at the inquiry and was jailed for seven months on civil and criminal contempt convictions.

Although Dunlop's off-hours investigation in the early 1990s brought the allegations into the public sphere, he told the judges that convicted him that he didn't have the heart to face the barrage of lawyers at the inquiry.

Of the 15 men charged as a result of Project Truth, only a bus driver was convicted. Four died before their cases came to trial, four were acquitted, four had the charges against them withdrawn, and two had the charges against them stayed over delays.

Much had been made about a city torn apart by lurid allegations about trusted public figures, but McIntosh said that's never been his sense.

"There was more interest before the inquiry because these stories of the clan and all this other stuff were just running rampant," he said, adding the inquiry, and Leroux's testimony, took a lot of steam out of the public furor.

"My sense of the community is, let's get this thing over with."

The inquiry was established in 2005. When it was still plugging away in October 2008, the provincial government stepped in and set an end date.

Engelmann said while he is relieved the process will soon be over, the length of the inquiry was due in large part to its broad mandate.

"Another thing that took a lot of time, and I don't regret it, is the calling of the evidence from the victims and alleged victims," Engelmann said.

"Some of that evidence was very painful for these individuals and they needed breaks, it took extra time. We wanted to make sure that we, as a quasi-judicial process, treated them in a fair and respectful way."

Paul Scott, the head of the community group Citizens for Community Renewal, said the inquiry was worthwhile if it helps prevent child sex abuse.

"If it saves one child -- I'm sure it will save more -- I think it was well worth the expense and the time," he said.

Scott said he hopes to see recommendations in the report on better ways to offer support for victims of sexual abuse.

"I think there are small little things that are happening, but I don't think the healing and reconciliation aspect has really started with any great effort," Scott said. "We'll have to do a lot more in that area."

Scott would like to see a safe house established for abused men, a memorial for victims of sexual abuse, public apologies from politicians and the church and counselling offered beyond the inquiry's mandate.

The inquiry's counselling support is slated to extend 90 days after the report's release.