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Donna Bell’s Trial…it’s about time.

WARNING… Triggering content.  Childhood sexual abuse.

In June 2016, Donna Bell, a native Scarborough, Ontario resident currently living in B.C., took the stand against her childhood abuser, Tom Furiano.  It was an historical case that took place 40 years ago.

He was her drum and bugle corps instructor.  Donna discovered much later that the other kids referred to him as Chester, Chester the child molester.  Although he was twice Donna’s age, married and father of two, Furiano took 13 year old Donna as his girlfriend and lover.  This was a year long affair beginning in 1976 until 1977.   An affair that Furiano’s co-workers were aware of yet said nothing.  The age of sexual consent in 1976 was 14.  Disgusting but true.   Donna was 13 years old.

It’s hard to fathom that any government could pass a law allowing children to be deemed mature enough to give sexual consent at 14 years old.  Many 14 year old girls haven’t yet reached puberty.  The 70’s was also not a time where children had much of a voice if any.  Speaking out against assaults was typically silenced with disbelief dripping with rape culture.  Given the age of consent and the lack of support, I can only imagine how many prepubescent rape victims’ were told they consented.  The 70’s wasn’t known for its children’s rights activism.    

One of our major achievements as a society has been bringing awareness to the reality of sexual abuse involving children and it’s damaging psychological effects.  Until recently in history, the lasting effects from trauma relating to childhood sexual abuse, has not been given the proper attention and support.  Because of this, many have suffered in silence burying their pain for there was rarely anyone available who would listen.  This issue has taken a long slow road to where we are today, but we still have far to go.  Prevention.

Many of these perpetrators engage in the “grooming” of their victims as did Tom Furiano.   In 2016 we are also faced with the online grooming that lures vulnerable young people willingly to their abusers.  This is a growing problem that is difficult to address, but an issue we cannot ignore.  There needs to be more awareness and intervention.  We need to protect our children.

Furiano spent time grooming Donna.   She was a colour guard for the Seneca Optimists back in the spring of 1976.  Coming from a broken home and wanting to fit in, she was an easy target for Furiano.   He gave this young girl the attention she was craving.

They started meeting twice a week after practice and he would give her beer.  They often met with Furiano’s  co-worker and his girlfriend after practice.  They would all drink beer despite Donna being a child and underage.  It wasn’t long before the relationship between them was known amongst the other members of the drum and bugle corps and staff.

Late in the summer of 1976, Donna agreed to go to Furiano’s family home in Etobicoke, as his wife and children were away for a long weekend.   It was there he would again give her beer and possibly drugs.  This time she succumbed to his charm.   It was there 13 year old Donna lost her virginity to her 26 year old instructor.  This memory was very clear to her as this is a milestone in any woman’s life.   

Their sexual encounters became more frequent, usually in the parking lot outside of her building in Scarborough.  This romantic sexual relationship between a child and an adult continued on for a year.

The Seneca Optimists travelled during the summer breaks for competitions and performances.  One of these trips in 1977 took them to Colarado.  It was on this trip that one of the instructors tried to dissuade her from seeing Furiano.  During these trips, Furiano found time to engage in sexual intercourse with Donna. He made sure their sleeping bags were close to each other.

While on the trip to Colorado, Elvis passed away.   August 16 1977.  Donna remembered this clearly being big news   She remembers at that point in time, she and Furiano had been romantically involved for some time.   In November 1976 she turned 14.  The age of consent.  This relationship started before her 14th birthday.  

It wasn’t until later in Donna’s life that she realized how traumatizing the relationship with her instructor was.  It became apparent that she was a victim of childhood sexual abuse and had been suppressing it most of her life.  She stated that it was out of kindness to her 13 year old self, that she decided many years later to report.   She would take care of what no one else would back in 1976.  She was letting her 13 year old self have a voice.

Later, in 1977, after a year together,  Donna ended the relationship.  She told Furiano that she no longer wanted be second and that she wanted a real boyfriend.  A boyfriend she could be seen with in public.  He didn’t want to let go.

Fast forward to June 27, 2016.  Toronto Superior Court at 361 University Avenue.  Furiano is charged with having sex with someone under the age of 14.  His trial was based on historical laws that were in place in the 70’s.

The accused Tom Furiano, had requested a peace bond.  Donna quickly turned down the offer.  After all these years the story needed to be told.  A peace bond was an insult.   Donna took the stand with what appeared to be confidence.  We all knew how nervous she was and were amazed at her composure.  She spoke well.  She was articulate.  Even.  The judge was very careful to take notes and not miss anything.

The defence didn’t really seem to have one.  He was trying hard to snag Donna up for saying she had to dig deep for some of her memories.  This, as we all should know, is normal.  He harped on as if her memory was so bad she had to dig.  Dig the only word he had for a defence besides saying she didn’t know the year.  The accused never denied having sex with her.  He never denied the year long relationship or being married with children.  None of it.  He said she was 14.

The defence, while cross examining Donna in preliminary hearings, had tripped her up and interrupted while she was remembering the year and her age.  She said, I am not good with math but I remember very clearly how old I was.  I was 13 years old.

The defence continued saying her birthday was the end of November and could it be possible that she was mistaken?  That she was indeed 14.

Donna remembered clearly she had lost her virginity at Furiano’s house on a long weekend that was either in August or September when she was 13.   She remembered it was warm.  Even if it had been the thanksgiving long weekend, it would still have been before she turned 14.  Because she remembered her age and not the year while in preliminary hearings, the judge found her evidence not enough to convict.  She went on to say that in no way is it condoned to be having sex with a 14 year old but she couldn’t convict based on the evidence.

We all gasped.   I say offering the peace bond looks awfully suspicious.

The defense tried to say that it was close to her being 14.  Does that mean the laws back then do a back to the future and change from 14 years to 13 years and 10 months to be the age of consent?  Justice was not served.  Again.

The only solace in all this is that Donna Bell was able to go and tell her story and speak up for her 13 year old self.  Tom Furiano, although acquitted, had to attend court for his behaviour.

So yes, it’s about time.  About time the justice system realized that trying sexual assault cases, present day or historical, need to heard on a different platform.   It’s about time we had sexual assault courts where judges and crowns are experts as in Mandi Gray’s trial.   It’s about time it became mandatory for the accused to take the stand to bring balance to the story.  A true he said, she said, not a she said and he watched.   It’s about time we consistently get to examine the accused’s behaviour and credibility as well as the complainant so that we can more accurately get to the truth.   It’s about time that the justice system got on board with protecting women from sexual assaults, from rape myths and culture, and started giving us a voice in court that is understood and validated.

Unfortunately, our time hasn’t come…yet.

Thank you Donna Bell for being courageous.  We believe you.

 

L.C. Redgrave

Coming Forward

 

4 Comments

  1. Reply

    Ray Bernier

    The Crown Attorney did not do their homework. The rape laws in effect in the 70s did in fact have the age of consent set at 14. But it also had a provision that the age of consent jumped to 16 if the girl was ‘previously chaste’; in other words, a virgin. And here’s where the law was really interesting. The Crown did not have to prove that the girl was a virgin. Instead the law created a reverse onus situation, namely, the accused had to prove that the girl was not a virgin. So whether the girl was 13 or 14 was irrelevant. It was statutory rape clear and simple. And with the man’s admission that sex took place, he was guilty by way of his confession, unless of course he could prove that she wasn’t a virgin when they started having sex.

    1. Reply

      LC - Coming Forward

      Interesting that the Crown, detective, judge and victim witness assistants all talked about the laws being 14 for consent in ’76 but they didn’t mention being previously chaste as a condition. I’ve heard about the accused having to prove she was a virgin. I wonder if there might be grounds for an appeal. This would be considered a legal error. Unlike my trial where the judge made factual errors that they let slide because he didn’t make a legal error.

    2. Reply

      Kyle

      The law as it stood then indeed allowed prosecution for intercourse under 16 if the complainant was “previously chaste”, and in fact chastity was presumed. This was pre-Charter, so of course the reverse onus would likely not withstand legal scrutiny and the Crown might very well have to prove chastity. Not only that, the law as it then stood contained a very rape-myth-laden escape clause, which is that the accused could gain acquittal upon the successful argument that the complainant was just as much to blame [yes, those words were in the Code] as the accused. No judge or jury could, in 2017, fathom to give effect to that argument. Nor would any Crown put any complainant in the firing line of such a perverse argument. Yet, proceeding on that charge would do exactly that.

  2. Reply

    Kyle

    The Code as it then was, presumed chastity. However, this onus would not likely survive Charter scrutiny. But more importantly, the Code as it then was allowed an acquittal if the child was just as responsible for the incident as the accused. Obviously, those provisions were the epitome of patriarchal backwardness. They are also pre-rape shield. In cases like that, the defence would be obligated to resurrect the myths. No prosecutor would dare be responsible for hanging a victim out to dry like that.

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