Sex assault prosecution relies on memories
Acase against a former school guidance counsellor charged with sexually assaulting a male student decades ago poses challenges for all involved given the years that have passed, say experts.
Fred Henry Archer, 64, was charged this week with sexual assault and gross indecency following a months-long investigation that began after a male student told police he was assaulted in the mid-1980s by a guidance counsellor at Springbank Middle School.
Defence lawyer Jim Lutz is not representing Archer, but has defended people against sexual assault charges. The allegation, he said, carries a stigma that even an acquittal sometimes cannot erase.
“It’s always important to remember that the accused is entitled to that benefit of doubt,” said Lutz. “It would be nice if that carried over to the court of public opinion as well.”
Sexual assault charges can ruin careers, reputations and force people to leave their communities, he said.
“Especially in a teacher-student situation, it’s almost presumed you’ve done something wrong because you’re in a position of trust. It can be crushing to your career. Even if you’ve been acquitted, there’s still that spectre, that shadow, that hangs over people.”
Until last week, Archer had sometimes worked as a substitute teacher at the Calgary Science School, where parents said he was a popular instructor.
Jaime LeBarron, who now teaches at Columbia College, said she was a troubled Grade 9 student at John Ware Junior High School when she met Archer, whom she now regards as a teaching mentor.
When other teachers were difficult to approach, LeBarron said she found Archer always willing to listen.
“There’s a victim that obviously believes this has happened and, trying to be sensitive to that, I never had any reason to doubt Mr. Archer at all. I never (had) creepy vibes or anything like that,” she said.
University of Calgary law professor Jennifer Koshan said sexual assault cases hinge on the alleged victim’s recollections and don’t require supporting evidence from others. In a case dating more than 20 years, the complainant’s memory will be less clear about details such as times and places, said the former prosecutor.
“I think that’s going to be a challenge, especially for the Crown prosecutor, because it will be up to the Crown to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt,” Koshan said.
A Calgary teacher who was acquitted in 1998 of assaulting a student 14 years earlier, said he still feels torn by the issue, even in his case.
“I firmly believe that sexual assault abuse is underreported and I think the police acted correctly in assuming that they had to pay attention to this,” said the man, who wished his name not be made public again for fear of the stigma.
His belief in the legal system and the support he received from parents, fellow teachers and his principal, helped him get through the ordeal.
“It’s a conundrum because, of course, there’s a huge personal cost,” he said.
University of Calgary social work professor Leslie Tutty said it’s often difficult for victims of sexual crimes to come forward, pointing to lengthy passages of time between the suggested crime and charges. Many victims of sexual assault never come forward, she said.
“I would suspect that most people don’t come forward. It’s so difficult — and I don’t know the particulars of this case — but boys often never tell.”
RCMP spokesman Sgt. Patrick Webb said investigations involving historic claims of abuse do not have the benefit of physical evidence and must therefore rely solely on recollections from those involved.
Police then look for people and things that can lend credibility to the accusations.
“It all hinges so much on versions of events both from the accused and the victim and trying to determine what happened based on what they can tell us,” said Webb.