“Unleashed” By: Rev. Harry Nigh

Posted by on May 8, 2012 | Comments Off on “Unleashed” By: Rev. Harry Nigh

We gathered on a coffee house patio next to the soaring, abstract sculpture of a wind-filled sail beside Hamilton’s harbour. The sculpture is called “Unleashed”. It was here next to this sculpture that we scattered Charlie Taylor’s ashes on the waters of Hamilton Bay after his death 3 years ago.

On this day we gathered to mark the 15th anniversary of Charlie’s release from prison and to reflect on the all that has happened in its aftermath. 

In June, 1994, Charlie had just finished his seven-year sentence for sexual crimes against children. It was his fourth adult sentence for crimes against children. The tragic irony is that no one ever a served a day for all the times he was sexually assaulted when he was a child in care.

Earlier that winter I had received a call from Bill Palmer, psychologist at Warkworth Institution asking for support for Charlie on his return to the community because Charlie would serve every day of his sentence and would be released without any community supervision.

“Could you put him on a Mennonite farm?” Bill suggested as a new beginning away from the city in which he would always get lost.

I had known Charlie for many years through the M2/W2 ministry. Ed Vandenberg and John Aukema had befriended Charlie all through his sentence as his M2 sponsors. Les Horne had also known Charlie in his capacity as Child Advocate for Ontario.  Charlie loved Les like a father.(Click here for Les’ poetic tribute given at Charlie’s memorial service.)

In Les’ words, “The name he used for himself when he felt pampered was Chuckie, but it sounded so daft when he said it that nobody ever picked up on it. 

“The story of Charlie’s childhood and his history of institutional care is very familiar to students of child welfare.  He was an unwanted child in a troublesome family.  One of his brothers died violently in Kingston Penitentiary.  Charlie used to say that his brother had the mentality of a child of three and that the prison pipeline reported that he was killed by the staff.  He would get very angry when he discussed it.”

A Circle of Support?

The idea of a farm did not go anywhere so I responded to Bill by saying, “what if we created a Circle of Support for Charlie?” Members of my congregation and others volunteered their help in reaching out to Charlie. “We’ll call our group “Charlie’s Angels”; I suggested, and soon Les Horne, Murray Lumley, Dorothy Alexander, Beryl Stephen, along with a very supportive police officer, Det-Sgt. Bob Maxwell and his pro bono lawyer, Douglas Alderson became Charlie’s circle. Later Julie Bender, Rick Pauw, Rob Brown, Edgar Rogalski and, Eileen Henderson were vital members.

We were totally unprepared, though, for the outrage that accompanied his release that June fifteen years ago. Charlie was front page news. “Streets of Fear” rang one headline. Education officials copied the accompanying photo along with his criminal record and placed a warning notice on the desk of every primary school student in Hamilton-Wentworth.

When the notice landed on the desk of our 8-year old son, Matthew, he blurted out, “Hey, I know him. He was at our place for supper last night!”

The police expected Charlie to re-offend within a month. They placed him on constant surveillance and for 6 weeks parked front and back of his apartment. We couldn’t take him to Tim Horton’s or the barbershop without two cruisers following us. One officer mentioned in passing that it had cost $ 350,000 to keep Charlie under watch during that 6 week period. We could have sheltered a terrorist for less money!

I was afraid – certain that my days were numbered as a minister in Hamilton because I feared like the others that Charlie would inevitably re-offend. Our Circle continued to meet with him and stay in touch daily, but why was this happening? I had just tried to be sensitive to God’s Spirit and the Gospel and we had landed in this public mess. I wasn’t even particularly fond of Charlie, not in the beginning anyway.

Within 3 months after Charlie’s release another man, Wray Budreo, was released in Toronto and Hugh Kirkegaard and Evan Heise organized a second Circle with volunteers from Holy Trinity Church and with the support of Detective Wendy Leaver.

These two guys became the pioneers. Life eventually settled into a routine of small, day-to-day crises, of finding a vet for Charlie’s cat or managing Wray’s love of media attention. There are enough stories over the fifteen years with these two fellows to fill another Gospel, stories of anguish and struggle, but also stories of hope, hilarity and healing. (It’s a story that must be written some day because it really is a story of good news.)

Both men with the help of their Circles and many other sources were able to carve out a new life among us. To our astonishment and against all odds, neither man ever committed another sexual offence. Out of our experience with these two men the concept of Circles of Support and Accountability was born. 

Recognizing the potential the government began funding a pilot project in the GTA –Hamilton – KW area. In this area the project is managed by Mennonite Central Committee under the selfless leadership of Eileen Henderson and staff.                

Other projects received support across the country. Soon it was planted by various jurisdictions in the United States. Researchers found that men who received a Circle of Support & Accountability re-offended at a “dramatically lower rate than similar men who are not afforded a Circle” (Dr. Robin Wilson). Quakers from England came to Canada to see the work and now a full fledged Circles UK has been created. Interest continues to build in Australia, Italy, France and Spain.

Twelve years after his release, I found Charlie dead in his apartment at Christmas time. He had not re-offended. (That’s if you don’t count pinching steaks from No-Frills and other little pinches here and there). Fourteen years after his release, Wray Budreo died of heart failure. He also never re-offended.

None of us had any idea of what the Spirit was giving birth to when Charlie stepped out of prison 15 years ago. We were scared and lost but maybe that’s the way it is when the Spirit is unleashed.

I often wonder what would have happened if either Charlie or Wray had re-offended. Many times we had doubts and we held on with prayer. But we had each other and we had a sense that the Spirit was blowing, on the Spirit’s own terms, as Jesus said, “but you do not know where it comes from or where it is going” (John 3:8).

And as for meaning?  I’ve come to believe that God’s ideas for healing and community safety are unimaginably wider, kinder, more transformative, more just and even more fun in their delivery than any of us could ever dream.

Click here to listen to Harry talk about his friendship with Charlie and the start of the Circles of Support and Accountability.