The finding surprised researchers, turning on its head an accepted theory of sentencing under which offenders who breach a child's trust – such as babysitters, family friends or teachers – warrant particularly harsh punishment.
Colleen Parrish, director of policy for the inquiry, said the trust issue jumped out for her researchers, since they had anticipated finding the opposite pattern.
“It may still take a while for society to realize the incredible change that it causes in someone, when a person who cares for them and should be looking after them breaches that trust,” Ms. Parrish said in an interview.
“We are still coming to grips with the profound damage this can do. Many individuals who have experienced a breach of trust speak quite movingly of how terrible it was to have it happen because it really destroyed their ability to trust other people.”
The commission's research encompassed more than 768 non-familial child sexual abuse cases that were resolved in the court systems of Alberta, Ontario and Quebec from 1969-2008. Ms. Parrish said the study will be released in the near future, after a final revision.
In Alberta, the average sentence in a trust scenario was 36.5 months, compared with 48 months for a non-trust scenario. The average sentence in Ontario for a breach-of-trust assault was 25 months, compared with 37 months for cases involving strangers. In Quebec, the average in trust scenarios was 28 months, compared with 33.5 months for non-trust cases.
“We wonder whether there is a tendency on the part of everyone who touches the justice system – Crowns, defence and judges – to think that a breach of trust is somehow less bad than cases where a person has been snatched off the streets,” Ms. Parrish said.
“The justice system reflects social values,” she added. “We think that we may be seeing a persistence of social attitudes.”
The study also found that pedophiles are sentenced to significantly longer prison terms in Alberta than in Ontario or Quebec.
The finding highlighted an anomaly of Canadian sentencing practices: While consistency is meant to be a hallmark of justice, sentencing patterns can vary sharply from province to province.
“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 unwarranted,” observed the authors of the Cornwall inquiry study, analysts Angela Long and Louise-Michelle Tansey-Miller.
“The justice system exists within a social milieu,” Ms. Parrish said. “You may be seeing different social attitudes in different provinces.”
However, she noted that the sentencing gap between the three provinces appears to be narrowing. Simultaneously, Alberta appellate courts are causing sentences to slowly come down in length, while appeal courts in Ontario and Quebec are causing them to gradually climb.
Other findings included:
– While the majority of child victims in Alberta were female, the majority in Quebec were male. In Ontario, the victims' gender is evenly split.
(Specifically, the totals were: Alberta, 64 per cent female; Ontario, 48 per cent female; Quebec, 35 per cent female.)
– Contrary to common belief, offenders whose victims were male were given sentences roughly equal to those whose victims were female.
– Sentences in Ontario are higher than in the other two provinces for so-called “historical abuse,” in which victims do not report their allegations until many years later.
Ontario offenders averaged 10 months longer in prison in these cases than offenders in Quebec did.