The life and destructive legacy of Graham James

For days now, I have been poring through the incredible work of Jeff Hamilton’s "A Stain on Our Game: The Life and Destructive Legacy of Graham James." This painful chronicle of the path of destruction left by convicted sex offender Graham James has left me wrestling with the same question that has been on my mind for the last 20 years:

Where is the outrage?

It’s always astounded me how blind and numb we can be. Child sexual abuse is a very real and significant problem in our society today, and yet it takes tragic stories like this to raise this into the public consciousness and generate discussion. It takes the victims of these horrors coming forward and exposing their pain and suffering in order for us to pay attention.

How long will they keep our attention this time? It’s comfortable and convenient to just move on and ignore the travesties that take place in secrecy. This is not a hockey problem. This a societal problem. Child sexual abuse makes us uncomfortable, so we don’t give it the sustained focus it demands.

We really can’t afford to keep hiding from it.

I feel the need to say to all these survivors — those named, and the many thousands not yet identified — that I am so sorry that so many people let you down. What you have lived through, what you are living through, should never have happened. You deserved so much better. You should have been protected and respected, and you had a right to be safe.

The vast majority of child abuse survivors suffer silently. We never hear their stories, nor do we take the time and effort to understand their pain. They have already been failed and have had their sense of trust stolen, so why would they feel safe enough to share their trauma with us?

It’s truly remarkable when individuals like Sheldon Kennedy, Theoren Fleury, and Jay Macaulay find a voice to speak out and advocate, and hopefully find some healing through this process. But make no mistake, these boys, and every other child survivor out there, really owe us nothing. We failed them.

So when survivors do choose to come forward, share their story, report to police and pursue justice — well, to me, that’s incredible. We need to ensure that when they take this step and show unimaginable courage, our response cannot be so underwhelming. Very few victims of child sexual abuse ever see the inside of a courtroom. And while there are remarkable people working in the myriad systems available to victims, there really is very little in the way of a safety net or a way to ensure they will get what they need to move forward. They deserve all our support and care.

In Manitoba, there are more than 4,000 child abuse investigations every year. That’s a terrifying number, given that most abuse goes unreported. Child sexual abuse is too often debilitating and incredibly silencing. Jay’s heroic willingness to share his story provides us with a window into the life of so many survivors. His life has been wrought with struggle, and yet he’s managed to survive. He has been angry and he has been masking his pain in whatever way he could. He found ways to cope, on his own.

Graham James robbed so many of the childhoods that they were entitled to, and left lifelong wounds that may never heal completely. But for James, the consequence is that he serves a few years in jail and then moves on. How is that just? What value do we place on a child’s life and innocence?

It prompts the question: if we, as a community, don’t stand up for children, have we not failed? I am amazed sometimes at our priorities. In many cases, we see more significant punishments for property offences than we do for the violation of a child’s body. At a time in our history when individuals have access to an unprecedented number of ways to have their voices heard on any issue, we are silent when it comes to child sexual abuse.

At a time when we analyze every move that anyone in the public eye makes and we seemingly become outraged at just about everything, we are silent on this issue. Where is the outrage when it comes to adults sexually violating our children and youth? Really. Where is it?

I wish I could say we are better than the community that turned a blind eye and failed Sheldon, Theoren, and Jay. But the truth is that, at a time when we have decided everything is our business, we have blinders on when it comes to abuse. We are reluctant to intervene or speak up. We don’t challenge adult behaviour.

Let’s face it: most of us are not going to encounter a blatant sexual assault. Offenders are too good at hiding that. But there is so much that we do see: odd behaviour, broken boundaries, lines crossed. It’s time for us to speak up. There is no more important job for any of us. Protecting our young people is a community responsibility.

We all need to find a voice and take action to prevent child sexual abuse, because this is a problem that is not going away. We must intervene when we have concerns, and when we know a child has been hurt, it is our job as a community to come together and ensure their every need is met. We must do all that we can to give them their childhood back. Children are unbelievably resilient; if we choose to invest in them, great things can happen.

And we can deal with this now. We can do better. We can commit to doing all we can to ensure every child has a safe childhood, free of abuse. Either that, or we can go on trying to repair shattered children in adult bodies, who are struggling to make sense of why we didn’t care enough to say or do something when we had the chance.

Christy Dzikowicz is the executive director at Snowflake Place, Manitoba's only child advocacy centre. She has worked in child maltreatment for more than 25 years and is leading some transformation initiatives tied to child abuse response in our province.