TORONTO – The sentences proposed for the man at the heart of the Maple Leaf Gardens sex abuse scandal have disappointed and angered some of his victims, but at least one expert says they show a growing willingness to condemn sexual crimes against children.
Gordon Stuckless’s lawyer is recommending his client receive a five-year sentence for sexually abusing 18 boys over several decades, with two years of credit for time spent on house arrest and efforts to prevent recidivism.
The Crown, meanwhile, wants the former teacher and volunteer coach to spend 12 years behind bars – double the sentence he was handed down by an appeal court nearly two decades ago.
Some of his victims and their relatives said Stuckless deserves a life sentence for the harm he has caused, and railed against what they consider the lax penalties entrenched in Canadian law.
Nicholas Bala, a law professor at Queen’s University, said that while no sentence will ever erase the trauma of sexual abuse, the justice system has taken an increasingly severe stance against such crimes.
“The defence is asking for a sentence that a couple decades ago would’ve been more than anybody would have imagined for this kind of offence and I think that’s encouraging,” Bala said.
“The Crown is asking for a significantly longer sentence than the original sentence and that reflects, partly, our greater understanding of the devastating effects that child sexual abuse can have on victims and also a greater willingness to denounce this kind of conduct,” he said.
“Historically, many of these cases…were not reported, they were not effectively prosecuted,” he said. “It was not taken very seriously, particularly if there was no physical injury to the child.”
Stuckless pleaded guilty to 100 charges and was found guilty of two more for abusing 18 boys between 1965 and 1985.
He previously pleaded guilty in 1997 for sex assaults on 24 boys while he worked as an equipment manager at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens between 1969 and 1988.
He was sentenced to two years less a day in that case, but that was later increased to six years, less a year for pre-trial custody.
He was paroled in 2001 after serving two-thirds of his sentence.
A report presented to Ontario’s attorney general in 2009 found that those convicted of sexual abuse against a child they were not related to faced an average custodial sentence of 30.08 months between 1996 and 2008.
The average sentence in Alberta for that same time period was 41.52 months, while it was 34.54 months in Quebec.
“Given that criminal laws in Canada are under federal jurisdiction and apply across the country without variation, this type of wide disparity in sentencing appears on its face, to be unwarranted,” it read.
The report was the result of research that followed the Cornwall Inquiry, which examined allegations of child sexual abuse against several institutions in the namesake city. The study found the issue had only garnered widespread attention in the previous 25 years.
“Prior to this, however, the issue of child sexual abuse received little individual attention,” it said.
Policy-makers began to focus on the issue in 1981 with the appointment of the Committee on Sexual Offences Against Children and Youth.
In its final report, dubbed the Badgley Report, the committee made a number of recommendations, including the creation of criminal charges specifically related to crimes against children.
Many of those reforms were later passed into law, and since then, several sexual offences against children have been given mandatory minimum sentences.
Those mandatory sentences may not apply in historical abuse cases because the accused is charged and sentenced according to the laws in place when the crime took place, said David MacAlister, a professor of criminology at Simon Fraser University.
Only if a sentence has since been reduced by law will the change apply, MacAlister said, noting it is extremely rare.
None of the charges Stuckless has been found guilty of carry a mandatory minimum sentence.
However, the 2009 report found that in Ontario, historical cases of non-familial child sex abuse tend to receive harsher sentences than current ones.
Between 1996 and 2008, the average custodial sentence for historical cases was 33.87 months, or 3.79 months longer than current cases.
Stuckless’s victims have called on the judge to impose the toughest possible sentence, saying the notorious case would set a new precedent.
Regardless of the sentence, Bala said the case will make an impact.
“This is an important case, partly because he was associated with one of the central cultural institutions of our country…and he was exploiting that position with the most vulnerable children in society,” he said.
“From a social point of view, the fact that someone like this has been held accountable, that many victims have come forward, it is significant.”