Those of us who live in glass houses
“Does Justice David Gruchy feel like he has blood on his hands?”
My colleague David Rodenhiser asked that question in a scathing column two days after the Nov. 5 stabbing death of an American sailor in downtown Halifax. Rodenhiser’s argument: the person who has since been charged with that murder was convicted in 2004 of “viciously attacking someone with a knife.” Despite the prosecutor’s request to send the man away for a dozen years, Gruchy sentenced the then-21 year old — who had no criminal record, had written a letter of apology to the victim and told the court, “I owe it to society to be a better person” — to five-and-a-half years in jail with double-credit for time served.
Because of that and a successful parole application, the man was out on the street instead of still in jail at the time of the murder.
Rodenhiser has rejected calls from both the chief justice and the bar association to apologize for his comments. “[It] might be a tough dose of reality for the judges and the lawyers to swallow,” he wrote, “but so be it.”
Rodenhiser is wrong.
Justice Gruchy should no more feel he has blood on his hands than Rodenhiser should feel he has blood on his hands for the 1998 suicide of Paul Aucoin.
Rodenhiser revisited that case himself in his Thursday column, in which he acknowledges that something he wrote may have contributed to Aucoin killing himself, but suggests that he — unlike Judge Gruchy — accepts responsibility for it.
At least no more than Gruchy probably accepts — and regrets — the unintended consequence of his actions.
Aucoin was a teacher at the Shelburne School for Boys during the sixties and seventies. In the nineties, he was one of many staff at that institution accused of abusing boys in their care.
On Jan. 11, 1998, Rodenhiser, citing court documents, identified Aucoin by name and offered readers apparently damning details the man had given provincial investigators.
Four days later, Aucoin killed himself.
Rodenhiser and Daily News columnist Parker Donham won a prestigious 1998 Michener Award — which I still believe was well-earned — for meritorious public service for their ongoing, in-depth reporting of what became known as the Shelburne sex abuse scandal.
But a later government report concluded that “most of the allegations [against staff] are either unsustainable or implausible.”
The only record I could find of a court case dealing with any of the allegations against Aucoin — a civil suit — was dismissed in 2002 after testimony Aucoin wasn’t even at the school when that abuse was supposed to have occurred.
So should David Rodenhiser feel he has blood on his hands because Paul Aucoin committed suicide after he named him in a story?
Rodenhiser was simply doing a difficult job to the best of his ability in an imprecise real world that is never as simple, or as easy to predict, as we’d like to believe.
So was David Gruchy.
The available evidence suggests Gruchy took his responsibilities seriously, trying to find the appropriate balance between expressing legitimate public revulsion at what he himself described as a “vicious, cowardly” attack and, at the same time, encouraging a young man, who appeared remorseful, to make “a possible decent future” for himself.
Rodenhiser now claims to find a fine distinction between himself and Gruchy because he accepts the “harsh truth [of the] possibility my story influenced Aucoin‘s decision to kill himself,” and is “prepared to live with the consequences.”
Which means exactly what?
Did Rodenhiser publicly apologize for whatever role he might have played in Aucoin’s death? Did he quit his job? Was he fired? What consequences?
There were none. Because, as Rodenhiser himself says, “my job involves writing things that may make some people unhappy.”
If you do your job — as Rodenhiser does, as the judge does — as honestly and responsibly as you can, using all of the relevant information available to you at the time, you aren’t personally to blame if there are unintended, unforeseeable consequences.
Whenever a senseless incident like this month’s murder of the American sailor happens, there is a natural tendency to want to pin the blame on someone.
While we have every right to question whether the guidelines judges use in handing down sentences, or the rules under which parole boards operate, are appropriate, suggesting a judge has “blood on his hands” for simply doing his job is beyond unfair.
Those of us who live in glass houses of our own construction should be careful where we aim our rocks.
Stephen Kimber, the Maclean Hunter Professor of Journalism at the University of King’s College, is the author of five nonfiction books as well as Reparations, a novel published this spring by HarperCollins.