The city of Westmount will pay up to $2.5 million to victims of sexual abuse at the hands of the late John Garland, a former director of Westmount’s parks and recreation department, in a proposed class action settlement agreed to unanimously by Westmount city council and abuse survivor Matthew Bissonnette.
Both Bissonnette and Mayor Trent deserve commendations for what they are doing. God bless you both.
Bissonnette was 12 years old when Garland, then his peewee hockey coach, began inviting him to his home and encouraging him to engage in sexual acts, and the abuse continued almost weekly for two years, Bissonnette claims in court documents. He believes Garland preyed on one or two young hockey players in this way every year for many years, and that authorities at the city of Westmount knew or should have known it was happening.
Westmount Mayor Peter Trent said the city investigated and realized the evidence was compelling. At a joint news conference with Bissonnette and lawyers for both sides, Trent announced a proposed settlement and apologized to Bissonnette and any other victims of Garland, on behalf of the city of Westmount.
“The city could have dug in its heels, hunkered down, gone into denial, taken the classical public sector response to such accusations,” Trent said. “Instead of doing that, we decided we should investigate, which we did, thoroughly. “
Garland worked for the city’s parks and recreation department from 1953 until his retirement 1987. He died in 2012, three years before Bissonnette launched his class action suit.
The proposed settlement will be submitted to the Superior Court of Quebec on May 1, if it is first approved as a class action suit in court next Tuesday. Four other people have so far come forward to be part of the claim.
Bissonnette thanked the City of Westmount for “doing the right thing here, and for doing it with great respect and decency.”
“The abuse that happened here is not particular to the city of Westmount,” Bissonnette said. “Unfortunately childhood sexual abuse occurred and is occurring in every community … (around) the world. Hopefully, the way this city has handled this will be a model to other communities to address the reality of childhood sexual abuse in their own communities.”
Bissonnette, now 51 and a successful film director based in Los Angeles, said he hopes that by publicly denouncing his abuser, he will encourage other victims to break the silence that too often allows child abuse to go undetected.
“I would urge anyone who is suffering child sexual abuse, or who has suffered, to tell somebody.”
Bissonnette said he kept quiet about the abuse as a child and teen, because of the climate of secrecy and shame around such issues that reigned at the time. In 1993, when he was a law student, he did go to the Montreal Urban Community Police station in Westmount to report the abuse, but nothing came of his complaint.
Trent said Westmount has implemented a number of preventive measures to try to protect young people from pedophiles, including background checks on all volunteers and staff members who come in contact with minors.
Mike Deegan, who took over as director of sports and recreation after Garland retired, said Garland was well known in the community and it has been hard for some to believe he committed sexual abuse.
“Definitely there was shock out there. Many people who played for John Garland contacted the city to say nothing had happened to them and they didn’t understand this.”
But Kurt Johnson, the lawyer who lead the city’s investigation into the matter, said that investigation involved “painstaking research into the city’s archives and multiple interviews with individuals who knew and worked with John Garland,” as well as former participants in Westmount’s sports and recreation programs, parents of participants, and volunteers.
He said that research, combined with Mr. Bissonnette’s “very transparent and credible” evidence, compelled the city to move forward with settling the matter.
The amount of proposed compensation — $100,000 per eligible claimant — was set according to previous settlements and decisions rendered in such cases. If more than 25 eligible claimants come forward, the parties will meet to renegotiate the terms, said Bissonnette’s lawyer, André Lespérance.
Bissonnette described Garland as a “very broken and sick human being,” but said that after years of therapy he now feels “nothing” when he thinks about his abuser.
He hopes this case will remind people that if they suspect sexual abuse, they should speak up, and they should realize that if “something seems wrong, it probably is.”
Mostly, he said, he wanted to encourage victims of sexual abuse, past or current, to report it, because this settlement shows that “There are answers, and there is hope and there is justice.”
Those who wish to make a claim under this potential class action should contact Class Counsel, Trudel Johnston & Lespérance. Names of class action members will not be made public and all communications will remain confidential.