Manitoba justice officials have quietly dropped a high-profile prosecution -- without explanation -- against three Sikh priests accused of years of sexual abuse inside a city temple.
Court documents obtained by the Free Press reveal the decision came on the eve of a trial earlier this year and followed a preliminary hearing in which the alleged victim provided evidence about what he claims happened to him from 1990 to 1996. He alleged he was restrained and forced to have intercourse.
After the preliminary hearing, a judge ordered there was sufficient evidence for the case to proceed to trial.
The surprise stay of proceedings was done through a letter sent by Crown attorney Wendy Friesen to Queen's Bench Chief Justice Glenn Joyal in March, indicating the scheduled trial dates were no longer needed because all charges were being abandoned. No further details were provided, and nothing was put on the public court record, as is often the case.
A provincial Crown spokesman told the Free Press this week no further comment would be made.
"Unfortunately, there is nothing the Crown can add to the information you already have," a written statement says.
Sheldon Pinx, the lawyer for the three accused, said this week he was as surprised as anyone to learn his clients had been abruptly cleared.
"The Crown never provided us with an explanation. What may or may not have gone on behind the scenes with the Crown and the complainant, we don't know," said Pinx.
Justice sources told the Free Press there may have been "credibility issues" with the alleged victim. An ongoing civil court case may have contributed to the decision.
The case burst into the public spotlight in 2006 when two of the three accused -- Bakhshish Singh, 51; Kuljit Singh, 47; and Dalbag Singh, 41 -- were kidnapped at swordpoint from the Gurdawara Nanaksar Sikh temple in St. Vital. Their abductor, who is now 30 years old, forced the priests into a vehicle and drove them to his parents' home, where he hoped to have them admit to the alleged sexual abuse while his mother and sister listened.
"Do you remember how many times you did that to me?" he screamed at them during the incident, court was told. He eventually pleaded guilty and was given a suspended sentence and probation in 2008. At the time, Crown attorney Melinda Murray told court the case shocked the Sikh community.
"It's clear to me there's been a division within the Sikh temple and the community... There are sides being taken, a big discussion and it's become quite difficult for both sides," she said.
Gurdwara Nanaksar is one of only 17 temples of its kind in the world. It's associated with a specific Sikh sect, Nanaksar Satsang Sabha, which has about 300 members in Winnipeg. Priests are expected to be celibate and lead a monastic life of meditation and prayer from as young as eight years old.
Following the kidnapping, police launched a sexual assault investigation and later laid charges against the priests.
During a 2009 preliminary hearing, the young man testified about the abuse he allegedly suffered during the many sleepovers he had at various city temples in order to learn about his culture. He described repeated sexual acts, which included the priests "grooming" him by showing pornography and even tying him up with turbans.
The evidence was covered by a publication ban, which has been lifted now that the case has been dropped.
"They sexually assaulted me, one by one," he testified. The man said he stayed silent about the abuse for nearly a decade.
"In our culture, it's even weird to talk to your parents about sex, let alone talk about something like this," he said. "How is a little kid supposed to tell his parents?"
The three accused have repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and planned to fight the allegations, said Pinx. They said they were out of the country for much of the time the accused said they abused him.
"The allegations... are completely false," they said in affidavits filed in court.
Pinx said the alleged victim's credibility would have been a key issue at trial, including his violent behaviour during the 2006 kidnapping incident.
"Our clients have always maintained they're innocent, adamantly, about what happened," he said. "This was a very, very difficult process for our clients."