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The Klassen story
Breaking through to the public

Fight to clear family name takes toll

Kari and Rick Klassen

REGINA - Citing his deteriorating health and an addiction to sleeping pills, the man who spearheaded a successful malicious prosecution lawsuit against police and prosecutors in Saskatoon has settled a portion of his claim.

Richard Klassen has reached a settlement with Saskatoon police Supt. Brian Dueck. Terms were not released.

"I'm not trying to let anybody off the hook here," Klassen said yesterday after signing the deal in Regina. "I just really want to go on with my life."

Klassen and 11 of his relatives were charged in 1991 with abusing three foster children — a brother and his younger twin sisters — in bizarre and demonic ways.

But by 1993 most of the charges were stayed to avoid further "trauma" to the children and, as the years passed, they recanted.

Last December a judge ruled that Brian Dueck, a child therapist named Carol Bunko-Ruys and Matthew Miazga, the lead Crown prosecutor, were malicious in their pursuit of a case against the family.

Damages are to be determined at a trial this September, but all three defendants have appealed the ruling.

The 11 other family members, including Klassen's wife, still have outstanding claims against all three of the defendants. Klassen, who represented himself during the trial, still has outstanding claims against Bunko-Ruys and Miazga.

Clearing the Klassen family name has taken a physical toll on Richard.

Midway through the ordeal he was diagnosed with prostate cancer and has just begun seeking treatment. He also developed an addiction to sleeping pills and antidepressants that he's been trying to kick since he won at trial.

"My addiction problem is being dealt with and I am doing much better," Klassen said, adding he plans on devoting the entire month of May to improving his health and might even check into a centre where he can get some more help.

Conflict complaint dismissed

Judge finds Klassen not affected by law firm connections

A conflict-of-interest application against a Saskatoon law firm was dismissed by a Court of Queen's Bench judge Thursday after complainant Richard Klassen unexpectedly retracted it.

Klassen said he raised the matter as a sort of pre-emptive strike so no one else could bring it up at a later date and delay a trial in September to set damages in his malicious prosecution lawsuit.

"I really needed to bring this motion forward so that I could have that dealt with. Things must go ahead in September," he said outside the courthouse. "We need this over. Everyone needs this over — the public needs this over. We all need to heal."

Klassen apologized to Justice Peter Foley for taking up court time.

Brian Dueck

Klassen and 11 others were falsely accused of ritual abuse and sexual assault against three foster children in 1991. In December 2003, they won their malicious prosecution suit against police Supt. Brian Dueck (right), child therapist Carol Bunko-Ruys and Crown prosecutor Matthew Miazga.

In his ruling, Justice George Baynton chastised Dueck for conducting a shoddy investigation into the allegations of sexual abuse and for ignoring evidence that would have cleared the accused.

A trial to determine damages is set for Sept. 13, although an agreement could be reached during a pre-trial settlement conference in June.

Klassen will make an announcement today regarding his damages suit against Dueck, but he would not say what it is.

"Let's just say things are moving forward," he said. "But if I say anything else, the other plaintiffs are going to wonder what's going on. I can't even tell my wife."

His announcement does not involve Bunko-Ruys and Miazga.

Carol Bunko-Ruys

On the conflict application, Klassen learned last month the law firm of Priel, Stevenson, Hood and Thornton was hired by police Chief Russell Sabo to look into Dueck's handling of the case. The same firm is defending Carol Bunko-Ruys (right), who helped Dueck prosecute Klassen and the others.

Foley asked Klassen how that arrangement directly affects him, to which Klassen admitted it didn't. Foley then said Klassen doesn't have any standing in the matter.

Any conflict-of-interest concerns in this situation are between the clients involved and the law firm. If either Dueck or Bunko-Ruys takes issue with the dual representation, only they can challenge it, Foley said.

"In light of that I feel there may not be a conflict," said Klassen, who has represented himself in all matters regarding the malicious prosecution case.

Foley dismissed the conflict application, saying, "there is no demonstrable conflict as Mr. Klassen has no status to intervene."

Lawyer Ken Stevenson, who is investigating Dueck and defending Bunko-Ruys, did not talk to the media outside the courthouse.

"I think the judge has said it all," he said as he walked away.

Klassen said his resolve to pursue the matter was softened a few days earlier when Dueck's lawyer, David Gerrand, notified all of the parties involved that his client was not taking a position on the conflict issue.

"I was happy to hear that," Klassen said.

If Dueck does not have a problem with the arrangement, he is not likely to sidetrack the September date with a complaint, Klassen noted.

With the conflict application out of the way, Klassen hopes an investigation into Dueck's conduct will be sped up.

Police spokesperson Insp. Lorne Constantinoff also expressed a desire for a conclusion, saying, "I'm sure things will move ahead smoothly now and we'll hear something soon."

Earlier this month, Stevenson said his work was "in limbo land" as he was forced to halt it until the complaint was heard.

Calvert apologizes to families

But won't discuss early settlement with wrongly accused

Premier Lorne Calvert apologized for the pain and trauma experienced by the 12 innocent members of the Klassen and Kvello families prosecuted for child abuse in the early 1990s when he met Thursday morning with some of the family and their lawyers in Saskatoon.

Following the hour-long meeting at the provincial cabinet office, Calvert said he was grateful that Diane Kvello, Pam Shetterly and two others "spoke to me with courage about the hurt they have felt and their families have felt."

The other two cannot be identified because they were youths at the time of the charges.

Kvello, Shetterly, and the other 10 family members sued various justice officials in 1994 after the abuse charges against them were stayed. Last December, a judge ruled that three officials maliciously prosecuted them.

The trial to decide damage amounts is scheduled for September. The government has also appealed the case, and that will likely be heard sometime after the damages trial. No money will be paid until after the appeal.

Calvert referred to the group as "obviously innocent people," but like Justice Minister Frank Quennell, didn't go so far as to admit the group was maliciously prosecuted.

The plaintiffs have called on officials to pay them their full compensation and end the ordeal.

Calvert said all sides need to "respect the judicial system" and let the various actions proceed.

Kvello, whose late husband Dennis was also a plaintiff, said it was a "very hard day" for her.

"I lost my husband in all of this. That's a burden, in my heart, I did not need."

Shetterly thanked Calvert for listening, but implored Calvert and the government to compensate them immediately.

"Let it be over so that we can start to heal," she said.

"We're asking for an end."

Family lawyer Robert Borden said Calvert "listened passionately" and appreciated the premier meeting with his clients.

Other plaintiffs chose not to attend the meeting with Calvert for various reasons.

None of the people in the meeting talked about compensation amounts.

The plaintiffs discussed the trauma they've experienced over the years, and then gave Calvert some recommendations on ways to improve the justice and social services system.

For example, they think more cheques and balances are needed in the system, and that there should be clearer rules on the Crown's disclosure of relevant evidence.

Calvert said he'd pass on these suggestions to the relevant parties in various departments.

Time to do right by Klassen clan

One can assume, given the troubled hand that has been dealt to the Klassen family, that it was not an easy task for Premier Lorne Calvert to meet with them Thursday.

This would particularly be the case when Justice officials have insisted — with some logic — that the premier not admit liability or withdraw from the government's commitment to back the appeal of Queen's Bench Justice George Baynton's ruling that the investigation and attempted prosecution of the family was malicious.

While it took an unconscionably long time for the premier to step forward and do what many in this province believed was his responsibility in this matter, it is to his credit that he finally took a step in the right direction.

Now he must realize — and realize quickly — that this week's weak apology is just a first step.

As detailed in Thursday's StarPhoenix, the toll on the 12 family members everyone agrees were falsely accused of horrendous crimes, has taken its toll and continues to do so.

Those who know the family insist, with some credibility, that two members are dead, in a large part due to the stress of the ordeal the family endured.

Others have tried to commit suicide, been hospitalized for stress-related mental disorders, descended into drug abuse, postponed medical treatment for cancer, suffered paranoid delusions and hallucinations and found themselves unable to form proper friendships or even have basic physical contact with their own children and grandchildren.

If, as Justice Minister Frank Quennell and government lawyer Donald McKillop insist, Baynton's ruling lowered the bar on malicious prosecution and will make it more difficult for police and prosecutors to do their jobs, an assessment by a higher court may be needed on the legal definition of what constitutes "malicious prosecution."

But when the federal government needed to know whether the Constitution allowed the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples, it went directly to the Supreme Court, without appealing lower-court decisions and risking doing unnecessary harm to people already caught up in the debate.

If the Saskatchewan government believes the higher courts would be disinclined to deal with a direct reference on this theoretical issue, it could still back the appeal but admit that the harm caused — whether the intent was malicious or not — is so egregious, and escalating at such a rapid pace, that immediate compensation is a moral imperative.

There is a huge difference between run-of-the-mill investigations and prosecutions that may be in error or even incompetent and those that are handled maliciously. Of the 84,000 cases dealt with each year in Saskatchewan, few likely get even close to the line of being malicious.

There is no question that law enforcement officials, social workers and lawyers must do their utmost to protect victims — particularly when dealing with children. But they must remember laws are designed to help humans interact with one another, not be an excuse to avoid doing the humane thing.

Calvert's apology may be a step in the right direction but it's time the province picks up the pace on providing compensation and brings this travesty to a conclusion. There is no need to wait until the scheduled September hearings to work out suitable compensation. Lawyers for both sides should be able to reach a just solution in a civil manner without an adversarial hearing, as happened with the $1.3M settlement with John Popowich, falsely accused in the Martensville case.

"Democracy cannot be maintained without its foundation: free public opinion and free discussion throughout the nation of all matters affecting the state within the limits set by the criminal code and the common law."

-The Supreme Court of Canada, 1938