It has been the most enduring — and troubling — question in the sickening saga of Graham James right from the beginning: did hockey’s most notorious pedophile really act alone?
No accomplices? No enablers? No one covering up for him? No other hockey coaches just like him sexually abusing the young players in their charges?
No one else? Really?
That’s the narrative Canadian hockey authorities would certainly like all of us to believe: "move along, folks... nothing more to see here. And, don't forget to stop by the box office on your way out."
But it’s also almost certainly nonsense, as we were all reminded once again this week with new and spiralling abuse scandals from the worlds of soccer and gymnastics strongly suggesting that if James was truly a lone wolf, both he and the institution (religion?) of Canadian hockey are unique in the world of sport.
Let’s start with English soccer, where a child sexual abuse scandal that began just a month ago with a single report has escalated into what Greg Clarke, the chairman of Football Association, the sport's governing body there, is now calling "one of the biggest crises" in the organization's history.
In November, former pro footballer Andrew Woodward, who played for six English clubs between 1992 and 2002, publicly revealed that he was sexually abused over four years — beginning when he was 11, by his pedophile coach, who has been convicted and imprisoned three times.
A national hotline set up by British police last month has been ringing off the hook ever since Woodward's story broke, sparking investigations by about 20 separate British police forces involving at least 83 suspects, 350 victims and 98 different soccer teams, many of whom are now accused of covering up the abuse for decades.
But James acted alone, right? And about that national police hotline set up for hockey's abuse victims to report their own miserable experiences? Yeah, good idea. we’re still waiting.
And then there's Thursday's latest chapter in the Indianapolis Star's painstaking investigative series on American gymnastics that has taken the shroud off a distressing history involving hundreds of sexual abuse allegations — some involving children as young as six — over the last 20 years, much of it committed in facilities operating under the umbrella of USA Gymnastics, the sport's national governing body.
The Star turned up "at least" 368 allegations of sexual crimes against 115 coaches and other people in positions of authority. Many accusations were dismissed or ignored. More shocking, the Star reported that in many instances, accused predators working in one gym were allowed to simply pack up and move to another facility.
If that sounds like exactly what the Catholic Church did with pedophile priests, moving them from diocese to diocese for decades until the whole disgusting operation finally unravelled... well, that’s precisely the point.
Wherever there are pedophile scandals, enablers usually aren't far behind — the church, sports, scouts, schools or any other respected societal institution that in recent years has been revealed to have been harbouring the monsters in their midst for decades.
Except, we are to believe, in the case of Graham James and Canadian hockey.
James, who was once named Man of the Year by the Hockey News, was convicted of sexually assaulting five teenage players while he worked as coach for junior teams in Winnipeg, Swift Current and Moose Jaw during the 1980s and early '90s.
The allegations first surfaced in 1996 and rocked the world of Canadian hockey, but it never went beyond James, at least publicly. All of which was very convenient for hockey executives, not to mention the many other institutions, including law enforcement, who have a lot to lose in any thorough discussion of who knew what during the James years.
But the numbers of victims and perpetrators that are emerging in these soccer and gymnastics scandals — never mind all the others over the years — are a compelling reminder that we are deluding ourselves in this country if we think Graham James was the only junior hockey coach to ever sexually abuse his players in this country.
As you’re pondering the implications of what that might mean, ponder this: the benchmark report on the Catholic Church abuse scandal in the U.S., put together by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, found that 4,392 priests — or four percent of the total number of priests in the U.S. — had committed an act of sex abuse on a minor between 1950 and 2002.
Shocked by that four percent number? You shouldn’t be — the same report found that’s roughly the same percentage of abusers found in a wide range of other professions.
Know what four percent of all the hockey coaches in Canada adds up to? A lot more than Graham James and the five players he was convicted of abusing.
But just as troubling as all the other abuse — and abusers — that remain in hockey’s shadows is what we still don’t know about the James saga itself, even now, 20 years after the first allegations against him surfaced.
As incomprehensible as it sounds, it has become the accepted narrative that he was able to sexually assault at least five players more than 350 times without anyone, other than James and his victims — finding out about it until much, much later.
If that sounds implausible to you, well, you’re not the only one. Sheldon Kennedy, one of the victims and the first to come forward publicly with allegations of abuse, told me a few years ago that James’s inappropriate conduct with his players was such an open secret at the time, players on opposing teams even openly taunted Kennedy about it.
"I rememshber getting teased by other players," he said then. "People absolutely knew what Graham was up to. It was (a) conversation that happened between people that I’m finding out now happened quite often."
Theoren Fleury, another of James’s victims, once suggested to me that if no one in authority around James knew what he was doing with his players, they were missing a lot of flashing red lights.
"How many coaches after a road trip do you jump into his car and go home with him? You know what I mean? It never happens. The coach-player relationship is at the rink, that’s it," Fleury said. "(James) was always hanging out with his players — taking them here, taking them there."
No charges were ever laid against anyone other than James and there has never been a meaningful public airing of the affair. No inquiry was ever called (compare that with the very public way the British are handling the soccer scandal) and he always pleaded guilty to criminal charges, meaning he never had a contested criminal trial in which the public could hear evidence called.
The same goes for civil proceedings. James was sued in 1999 — along with dozens of other co-defendants, including the Winnipeg South Blues, the Manitoba Junior Hockey League and the Manitoba Amateur Hockey Association — by an unnamed player he had been convicted of assaulting, but the case was settled just before it went to trial.
The out-of-court settlement included a non-disclosure agreement and all we know for sure today is that the player and his parents were seeking damages in excess of $1 million in their original statement of claim.
The absence of any purposeful public airing of the James affair means we still don’t know what role, if any, the various people who were around James at the time played in enabling his crimes.
The public has been left only with the blanket denials — issued periodically over the years — from all the people in hockey who surrounded James during his years of abuse: They did nothing, they have steadfastly maintained, because they knew nothing.
James, of course, would know the truth, but he’s not talking. I’ve reached out to him through his lawyers over the years, but he’s turned down my interview requests.
He’s on parole and living as a free man in Montreal these days and my offer to talk still stands.
To be clear, I have no interest in hearing from James about why he did what he did; the man is a pedophile and anything he’d have to say beyond that would just be excuses.
And I couldn’t care less if he’s sorry — and in talking to Fleury and Kennedy over the years, I don’t think they do, either.
No, I have just two most Nixon-ian questions for him:
What did they know? And when did they know it?