Fortney: Teenage victim is also the hero who halted Philip Heerema

He was a kid with exceptional musical talent, doubly blessed with parents more than willing to help make his dreams come true.

Never did his parents imagine, though, that by sending their child to the Young Canadians theatre troupe he would instead become a hero.

In 2014, the then 16-year-old boy had the courage to tell his parents that a longtime official with the organization, a man who had extraordinary access to the children, was sexually abusing him.

That first difficult conversation began a process that resulted in the conviction of Philip Heerema this past January.

Midway through his trial, the accused pleaded guilty to eight of 20 charges relating to his sexual involvement over the span of more than a decade with six underage male singers in the performance troupe. Those charges included internet luring, making child pornography and sexual assault. On Tuesday, defence and Crown lawyers submitted a joint 10-year sentence recommendation to the judge.

While he’s certainly a victim of Heerema, what that boy did was nothing short of heroic. His actions and words put a halt to years of abuse by the now 55-year-old sexual predator.

Then there is the distinct possibility of those future victims, kids who will now not have to suffer and struggle for the rest of their lives, thanks to the young whistleblower.

Still, what a price he had to pay. On Tuesday, a Calgary courtroom hears of his sacrifice, of the excruciating fallout from being both a sexual abuse victim and the victim who raised the alarm.

His mother, who reads her own victim impact statement before that of her son’s, provides an exhaustive list of the emotional, spiritual and physical damage criminals like Heerema inflict on their victims.

It’s a list that is sadly all too familiar: post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety; the breakdown of friendships and family relationships; and more self-blame and shame than any innocent child should ever have to face.

His mom — a publication ban prevents the naming of victims and other family members — talks about her child in those idyllic, pre-Heerema days, when he was a happy kid who earned top grades in school and had lots of friends.

After Heerema came into his life, though, there was a sea change in her child. “He lost his zest for friendship, work and homework,” she says as the convicted criminal sits across the room, his eyes downcast.

“Heerema was obviously a very skilled hunter,” she says, her calm delivery a stark contrast to the words on the page. “He had years to plan his crimes and many victims, not just my son.”

His initial willingness to speak out about Heerema quickly turned to regret, as he was subjected to “an aggressive and intimidating cross-examination” by the defence and had to make return trips to court to relive his abuse.

Both mother and son express their disappointment at others involved with the Young Canadians, including parents and alumni, saying few reached out to her child and his family. Instead, she says, her son “came to be viewed as a participant in scandal.”

Or, as her son wrote in his victim impact statement, “just because people say they care about you … they will not be there with you when the other shoe drops.”

Two other victim impact statements are read out by Crown prosecutor Martha O’Connor, who calls Heerema the “proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing” and a “trickster and a conman.”

Fear. Shame. Self-blame. The need for anti-depressants and other psychiatric help to move forward in a now most challenging, complicated life. Medical marijuana for the constant headaches and muscle pain. One told of how he had his “normal childhood, teenage years and early adulthood” stolen from him and now lives with the unending fear of “being alone with males in a position of authority.”

When deciding on Heerema’s sentencing, one wrote, “Please think of me and think about my life.”

Listening to their heartbreaking stories, one can only hope for the healing of these still-young victims — and hope that one day, a young man who continues to suffer will once again see himself as exceptional.

Not just for his many talents, but also for his courage in putting a stop to a sexual predator.

 

vfortney@postmedia.com

Twitter: @ValFortney

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