TORONTO - Two years for Graham James isn’t a sentence, it’s a gift.
It makes you want to scream. It makes you want to rail against the injustice of it all. Time and time again, the Canadian justice system promises a hard line on crime and yet fails the victims, diminishes their damages, and leans awkwardly and unfortunately in the direction of the disgraceful perpetrators.
And we are supposed to be silent and congratulatory when punishment somehow doesn’t match the crime.
But there is no need, no reason to be silent anymore. How can there be when James, the trusted junior hockey coach, the surrogate father, the man in charge of young men’s futures who violated those responsibilities in a most distasteful way with hundreds of sexual attacks on two young hockey players — Theo Fleury and his cousin, Todd Holt — gets off so lightly?
We are familiar with the victim’s stories. And we thank them for going public. We know there are many more out there, more players, more victims, who have never come forward. That is always the way with sexual predators, especially those who venture into the sporting vein.
Fleury and Holt lived with this awful secret for years, were tormented by it, were intimately involved as victims of the crimes James is guilty of, and they, now adults, cannot fathom or grasp a justice system that doesn’t make harsh statements when it has the opportunity to do just that.
And this was that opportunity.
A two-year sentence for James does not mean two years in prison. It probably means 16 months. Sixteen months and then James has the rest of his life to live in freedom. That, by itself, is disgraceful. For violating children. For ruining or damaging lives. For essentially raping young boys. Sixteen months? And what makes this worse is he was in a position of control and authority, as every junior hockey coach is in every Canadian outpost where junior hockey is played.
This is how it works in hockey. The coach comes to your house and explains that he’s the right man to place your trust in. He sells you and your wife with all his grace and understanding. It is part recruiting, part sell, but all across the country parents put their trust in coaches, allow their children to leave home too soon, believe they are doing what’s best for everyone.
Graham James was one of those salesmen. He made people believe. He had so many convinced, so many fooled, so many afraid. And then he went to prison for his assaults on Sheldon Kennedy and another victim. For that he was sentenced to three and a half years, serving 20 months behind bars. Three and a half years then.
Two years now.
Why the difference? The sentence, by all rights, should be longer after each conviction, not shorter. The prosecution asked for six years. Fleury thought 10 years was more the number, and he would have been happy with more.
“Mr. James’ victims are multiple,” Judge Catherine Carlson said in her sentencing, before contradicting herself, and showing little understanding of the weight of the crimes. “His behaviour was predatory and orchestrated to make victims dependent on him.”
And then she essentially let him off the hook. She went lightly on him. This wasn’t one case of abuse or two cases of abuse, this was the same boys being abused, over and over again: If there were 100 victims, they would lock James up and throw away the key. But what’s the difference between 100 victims and 100 rapes or sexual abuse of the same two victims?
“This sentence today is nothing short of a national travesty because we know that childhood abuse has reached epidemic proportions in our country,” said Holt, reading from a statement at a news conference in Cochrane, Alta. “Graham James is laughing all the way back to the life he has always led, knowing that justice for him is but a blip on the radar.”
The reaction on talk radio, on Twitter, on social network groups, was just as intense. How could this happen? How could a sentence for so heinous a crime be so laissez faire?
In court on Tuesday, James hid behind a mask, hiding from the public, maybe from other victims who never came forward. The judge didn’t wear a mask. Maybe she should consider one in the future.