Watching Présumé Coupable (Guilty), reminiscent of the horrors of Martensville….

Martensville.  The word still makes me shiver, after 25 years.  Maybe it’s Hallowe’en coming — probably not.

First off, I have to tell you that nothing happened.  No 9-month-old babies were handcuffed; no 11-year-old boys were forced to masturbate in front of a 17 year old girl holding a rifle; there was no cabal of policemen who sexually assaulted children after school in a blue barn out of town.  This was all made up.

Martensville, Sask is 8 km from Saskatoon, what is quaintly called a bedroom community.  Suddenly there was a complaint by a mother that her child, who attended a private home babysitting service,  was sexually abused by that caregiver—and her family.  More than 12 people, including the babysitter, plus a teenage girl who once pumped gas in Edson, Alberta, and five cops from three different police  forces were charged with sexual abuse of children. Over 190 charges were laid. This was in 1992,mart-2aerial view of Martensville, Sk. 

At the time, the babysitter, Linda Sterling, was in her 40s.  Her husband, Ron, also middle-aged was then deputy director of a provincial prison.  Ron also stood accused as did their son in his early 20s.   A woman who was a well-published writer in Saskatchewan, and her university-aged son stood accused when the crown insisted they allowed their near-vacant blue-roofed barn to be used as the ‘torture chamber’ for the sexual assaults against children as young as 9 months old. The woman lost her job in the education system as no one wanted a teacher tainted by the sex abuse scandal in Martensville.

I lost four friends, including a legal aid lawyer, who insisted that “we believe the children.”  The Saskatoon Sexual Assault Centre demanded my resignation because I refused to “believe the children”. Signs went up in  living room windows across the city, “we believe the children.”  The province’s lead social worker and witness for the Crown lived across the street from me – I feared him falsely accusing me and my husband.  

Everyone was suspect – yet there was no hard evidence—no medical evidence of penetration or bruising or infection, no corroborating evidence to back up what the school-aged children said under oath, no physical evidence that any child had ever even been in blue barn.   

The pre-school and school-aged children were “led” in their evidence by local social workers, police and psychologists.  They got incentives such as a meal at McDonald’s  for essentially making up stories. I was all but barred from the local movie theatre because the Martensville “social work team” rented space on the second floor. 

One rarely heard a dissenting voice—at the time only few of us dared to question the charges of ‘satanic sexual assault’  in relation to what happened in Martensville. Many accepted that  the dozen adults were guilty as charged—on the flimsiest of evidence

.mart-1a modern day sign, for building trust with the police….

I remember the summer before the trials began.  I had asked several friends – who demanded total secrecy — for money to pay for an apartment so the Sterlings, who lived in out of town, could stay closer to the courthouse in Saskatoon.   The Sterling family had lost almost everything, the babysitting income, Ron’s job in corrections, and their tract house in Martensville. 

With about $2,000 cash, I went from short-term rental buildings to sleazy hotels in Saskatoon.  Almost every manager told me, “we have children living in this building, we can’t have the Sterlings stay here.”  I finally convinced a woman manager at the King George hotel, a down-at-the-heels downtown hotel built in 1911, to rent the Sterlings a suite for a month or more. As long as you will pay in advance, she told me—and don’t tell anyone. There they stayed. 

pr-george the   1911  newly built King George Hotel, Saskatoon.

The trial lasted for months.  In the end, only Travis Sterling the 25-year-old Sterling son,  was convicted.  He got jail time for touching a teenage girl —a blanket between his fingers and her body.   Everyone else was exonerated. 

Most didn’t get their jobs back.  Middle-aged cops, the writer and others suffered in every way—financially, socially, and emotionally.  Careers were ruined.

But wasn’t just Martensville.  In Saskatoon what became known as the “foster family  case” involved an extended family, the Klassens, who took in three pre-teen siblings as foster children.  The children complained of sexual abuse and ritual abuse by the grandmother, who used a wheelchair, and by other relatives.  The The grandfather pled guilty and went to jail in an exchange for the police dropping charges against three family members.  More than a decade later, the foster son, now in his 20s, recanted, as did his sisters.  He recanted on CBC-TV’s the Fifth Estate.

In Canada and the US there were hundreds of convictions for improbable, actually impossible tales of sexual assault and ritual Satanic abuse in the 1980s and ‘90s.  Police now call it an “emotional hysteria.”  But years ago, they were very quick to lay charges and destroy people’s lives.   A brilliant 2011  French film Présumé Coupable [Guilty] reveals exactly how this could happen.   The film was made about an actual court case started in 2000 that lasted six years.  In Outreau, France, northwest of Paris, a bailiff, his wife and more than 10 others were charged in a case very reminiscent of Martensville.   This film will scare and exhaust you – but it’s a necessary antidote to what was more than decades of injustice and destruction created by false accusations in North America and Europe.

1.5 minute Trailer is here:   (film has Eng. subtitles)

get it at the Halifax Library for free.

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