Graham James’ disturbingly light sentence for sex abuse is not the lesson

Whatever sentence sexual predator Graham James received today in a Winnipeg courtroom would never have been enough. It is a travesty, a tragedy and abrogation of justice or whatever ten-dollar words people would like to apply to.

But it is not at the heart of the matter. We need to get that it's not about his ilk, but about stopping the raping of children, the robbing of their adolescence, the retarding of their development into adulthood. There is a lesson from today's news that the former major junior hockey coach will serve just two years in prison — he got concurrent sentences from crimes against two victims — is that awareness equals change. If it won't come from the Canadian justice system, it will come from people being more vigilant about whom they entrust with their children. That is happening, it will happen. Change filters up in society; it's not handed down by a judge.

As Todd Holt, the former Western Hockey League star who was abused by James, put it in a live news conference in Cochrane, Alta., after the sentence. (You may read his joint statement with Theo Fleury here.)

"The saddest part is there are more Graham James out there ... They [child abusers] need to take notice and be scared. There's no place for you to hide anymore, those dark corners where you cower. Theo [Fleury] and I call upon all Canadians, those who have suffered and those who stand with those suffering, to demand that our government to change the laws to empower justice so that it can do what it should be. We're calling out to our politicians to step up for the 1-in-3 girls and 1-in-5 boys who will be sexually offended before the age 18 in our country. We are standing up against the weak justice system and demanding change now.

"Theoren and I are calling out to you, the people Canada and the world, to take this issue to our politicians now and demand change ... My name is Todd Holt and I stand today with Theoren Fleury and all those who have suffered or are suffering, as a victor over sexual abuse and am asking for change."

Of course, the first question put to Holt immediately after he read his statement was about the length of James sentence. Outside the Winnipeg courthouse, another of the brave accusers, lawyer and former University of Toronto Varsity Blues goalie Greg Gilhooly who had to settle for this being his day in court, said he was "abso-frigging-lutely" pleased James is headed to prison and referred to him as a "monster."

But both knew no sentence or soundbyte that works in the 140-character world would put it right. All of that is 100 per cent true and somehow not the larger truth. However, the crux of it, as Sheldon Kennedy ("I don't think there's a sentence out there that any of us could ask for that is suitable for this type of abuse. Justice was served") noted, is that we're waking up to how difficult it for someone to ever feel normal again after this happens, even if he or she puts on the brave face. Maybe that understanding is late in coming, but better late than never.

As Kennedy noted in a news conference, it's more important to screen out the predators before young lives are ruined and scarred. Before they start grooming the next victim. As both this and another recent case involving a scoutmaster illustrate, it needs to be made extremely tough for pedophiles to consider being around children.

"The bar is moving slowly ... One thing that is very clear is that invisible trauma that these issues inflict on victims of crime and sexual abuse is something that we really need make visible. The sentencings don't come close to the damage that it leaves in its wake.

" ... There has been a ton of change in this country across the last 14 years [since James' first convictions] and this is another platform for change. Victims, other people who've been hurt by sex offenders, they need to come forward. Not only do we need to heel to get our power back, but they need to keep coming forward so we can keep raising the bar.

"Today is an important day. It's a good day even though it's probably not what we expected. But there are individuals here, and all of the media here, who are pushing for change. We all got to pull on the rope to make the invisible trauma that this damage inflicts on victims visible."

All the sentence says is that the courts, which by rule are always behind society, have fallen too far back in understanding the problem. This is a challenge that won't be contained easily. Society can no more be so arrogant to think this will not occur again than it can be so arrogant to believe it can rehabilitate certain types of criminals. The moral of this modern tragedy really is that sunshine is the best disinfectant.

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.