Brutality charge in Canada haunts ex-Oradell teacher
August 20, 1999
To his supporters, Brother Thomas Cuthbert Ford is a former math teacher at Bergen Catholic High School who lives quietly in a Hackensack apartment and performs modest charity work for his religious order.
But to Canadian authorities, Ford is a brutal man who beat five boys at a Newfoundland orphanage between 1956 and 1959. They want him brought back to stand trial on criminal charges.
Newfoundland Detective Mark Wall said Ford stands out in the memories of former residents at the Mount Cashel Orphanage, particularly for the way he allegedly beat a youngster named Edgar Hartery with a belt in a shower room.
"What he did to that young fellow was brutal. There's no doubt about it," Wall said. "It's certainly child abuse. Everybody remembered what Ford did. This is not corporal punishment. This is cruel. I just want Ford to stand up in court and let the courts decide what happened."
Ford's appointment with Canadian justice is far from certain, however.
The 64-year-old Ford is engaged in a legal battle to prevent Canada from bringing him to trial in a case that centers on the reliability of decades-old memories, the blurry line between corporal punishment and brutality, and the sharp differences between American and Canadian criminal law.
Unearthing long-buried stories of abuse, the charges against Ford echo other allegations of brutality at an orphanage whose dark history has seared its way into the Canadian consciousness in the past decade.
The stakes are undeniably high for Ford, a member of the Christian Brothers, a Roman Catholic religious order. About a dozen current or former members have been convicted of physical and sexual abuse at the orphanage. If found guilty, Ford could spend at least 12 years in a Canadian prison.
But under a treaty between Canada and the United States, a suspect cannot be extradited unless charged with a crime punishable by more than a year in prison in both countries.
Ford's attorneys say his alleged crimes amount only to simple assault in the United States and would draw no more than six months in jail. They also note that the statute of limitations on such a charge runs out after five years here, although there is no time limit for indictable offenses in Canada.
"I simply can't understand Canadian authorities coming after this guy after all these years on a case that is, at worst, a simple assault in New Jersey," said Ford's attorney, Edward FitzPatrick. "If we didn't have a statute of limitations, would authorities here dredge up 40-year-old assault cases? There's been no consideration given to a guy with an absolutely crystal-clear record."
FitzPatrick said Ford's actions were not criminal but forms of corporal punishment, a common practice at Catholic institutions in the Fifties.
At a recent hearing in Newark, U.S. Magistrate Stanley Chesler said he had strong doubts about whether Ford would ever stand trial in Canada because of the disparity in sentencing for the alleged offenses.
"I have grave doubts whether or not the offenses are analogous," Chesler said. "My concern is simply whether or not there has been an adequate demonstration that the charges Brother Ford has been charged with are, in fact, subject to extradition."
Chesler put off a decision to weigh further written arguments in the case.
Ford, an American and Irish citizen who has been working part time at the Christian Brothers headquarters in New Rochelle, N.Y., declined to be interviewed. Officials at Bergen Catholic, in Oradell, referred a reporter to Christian Brothers, which did not return several phone calls seeking comment.
Ford joined the religious order at age 15 and taught grammar school in Newfoundland before going to Mount Cashel, court papers show. After leaving Newfoundland, he taught in American schools for three decades.
His alleged victims remember him as a cruel man whose brutality stood out at Mount Cashel, according to statements taken by Wall, who has investigated Mount Cashel cases for a decade.
One alleged victim, Ronald Piccard, described Ford as "a coldblooded animal" who blackened his eyes, bruised his face, "and seemed to enjoy it."
Hartery gave Wall a series of statements about his alleged beating in the shower, which a large group of boys reportedly witnessed.
"Ford just nailed me with the thick black belt," Hartery told Wall in 1992. "He hit me everywhere. Across the back, the arms, the legs, the whole body. When he stopped, he just walked away. The other boys in the shower room were petrified."
Legal papers filed by Assistant U.S. Attorney Russel N. Jacobson said "history is careful to distinguish between the corporal punishments that were administered routinely at the Mount Cashel Orphanage and the severe beating that he [Hartery] received from defendant Ford."
But an investigator hired by Ford's attorneys interviewed Hartery last year and reported several discrepancies with earlier statements he had given.
For instance, Hartery said he did not seek medical attention after the alleged assault, he did not bleed, and he went to dinner, court papers show. He also said Hartery was a 14-year-old student in the fourth grade who chased a student with a knife. FitzPatrick, the attorney, said Wall never posed key questions.
"If you were hurt that bad, what happened to you?" FitzPatrick said. "Did you go to the infirmary, go to the sick house? No, [he] went to dinner. It's utter nonsense. It's an extremely weak case."
FitzPatrick said Wall "is beyond the pale as a law enforcement guy. He must have very little to do. He's consumed with these guys."
In Wall's view, it is disappointing that Ford may not return to Canada. "It seems to me that he's hiding behind something," Wall said.
The Mount Cashel cases have gotten wide national exposure in Canada. Police began an investigation of alleged abuse in 1975, but dropped the effort after two priests admitted abuse and left Newfoundland.
Investigators reopened the case in 1989 and eventually arrested nine brothers who later were convicted of abuse. The Roman Catholic Church closed the orphanage in St. John's in 1990, and it was torn down two years later.
A 1992 docudrama on the orphanage, "The Boys of St. Vincent," brought the case to life for millions of viewers in Canada.
The abuse also has had far-ranging legal and financial ramifications. Ninety alleged victims sued the Christian Brothers and the government of Newfoundland, which had financed Mount Cashel. Nearly half of them were awarded $11 million by the government, which sued the religious order.
They also are seeking $36 million in damages while trying to force the Christian Brothers to close two Catholic high schools in Vancouver and sell their assets.
Prosecutors have had mixed success in the cases of the seven men with whom Ford was indicted, four of whom are Americans. Two have been acquitted, and one is fighting extradition in New York State. One who was convicted of buggery and gross indecency received an 11-year sentence last week.