The worst scandals are The ones we Ignore
Wednesday March 16th, 2011
Cries of 'scandal' have been flying thick and fast in Ottawa, as opposition parties posture in advance of a possible spring election. But can the Tories' recent troubles really be described as true scandals -as opposed to mere controversies or indiscretions? In a week-long series, National Post contributors will try to define the elusive but all-important S-word, and explain why some scandals bring down governments, and others barely get remembered.
'It's a scandal!" More than "wrong," "unacceptable" or "inappropriate," the word implies behaviour by a public figure so outrageous that it offends the moral sensibilities of the entire citizenry.
Most political scandals involve universal human weakness, and only necessitate a fall upon a sword by the offender or a designated scapegoat. When cabinet minister Robert Coates visited a strip joint on official business abroad, it was enough to make him resign in 1985. But the sponsorship scandal, with direction from the top, revealed premeditated, deeply cynical collusion across many figures in government. The fitting result was collective punishment, which came at the polls.
Somewhere in between the two is the scandale manqué. Here, by virtue of the authority and power invested in him or her by the state, someone demonstrably harms innocent people, and such harm persists over time, but the culprit's political overseer(s) are never punished.
The scandale manqué that particularly haunts me is the story of Dr. Charles Smith, the forensic pathologist whose bias and incompetency during a 24-year tenure at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children led to unjust convictions, imprisonment and general ruination for many innocent parents and caregivers. A long-overdue review of Smith's work published in 2007 established that he made grave errors in at least 20 cases of childhood deaths, and cast doubt on 13 criminal verdicts in which his testimony was crucial to conviction.
Many of Smith's cases involved charges of "shaken baby syndrome," which is now under highly critical reassessment. (In the U.K., after a review of almost 300 cases of children allegedly killed by their parents under this rubric, 117 are being reconsidered).
The field of Canadian FORENSIC pathology has until lately been curiously unregulated -something of a scandal in and of itself. There is no formal training or certification process. A pathologist learns his trade by apprenticeship. Strange, because pathologists' expertise -or lack of it -so often is the final arbiter of another's fate. It would therefore seem obvious that oversight to ensure absolute intellectual neutrality and objectivity should be particularly strict in this field.
In Smith's case, warnings of his quirks and unreliability swirled for years before official notice was taken. Experts challenged his conclusion in one 1991 case, and the judge expressed skepticism. His office was a shambles. His dilatory habits caused unconscionable delays. A defence lawyer protested that Smith was "on a crusade" and acted more like a prosecutor than a neutral scientist.
Smith's own public behaviour and statements were not reassuring. He told the media he had "a thing against people who hurt children." He waxed emotional to the point of tears when speaking of a mother seeking justice for her baby's death. He later admitted he felt it was his job to advance the prosecution's theory in a criminal trial.
Space does not permit elaboration on the human devastation Smith wreaked, information that a cursory Google search will reveal in sickening detail. For the most egregious example, Louise Reynolds (two years in jail awaiting trial) was accused by Smith of stabbing her sevenyear old daughter to death with scissors, when unbiased evidence would prove the girl was mauled to death by a pit bull (at trial, Smith's mockery of the defence's assertions of a dog attack proved decisive, even though he later admitted to ignor-ance in that forensic area).
Reynolds's case sparked the Goudge Inquiry. Formalized oversight of Smith's work was "virtually non-existent," the report concluded. Amongst several other recommendations, it called for a more professional and transparent forensic protocol. The Office of the Chief Coroner was scolded, but no political resignations were demanded.
Over the years, some excellent journalistic work was done on the case by CBC's the fifth estate and by Maclean's magazine. But by and large, according to journalist/lawyer Harold Levy, currently writing a book on the whole sordid saga, rather than play a watchdog role, for 20 years print and TV media deferred uncritically to Smith and his enablers in the Chief Coroner's office. So almost nobody with the influence to stop Smith did what needed doing.
The extent of the collateral damage in the Smith case leaves us all scandalized. But no political heads rolled. Considering the injury down to his victims -and to justice -the story of the pathological pathologist should have provoked nation-wide outrage at the politicians who sat idly by. But sadly, it was just another scandale manqué.