In the vast majority of cases, court coverage presents few problems for reporters. Once a trial or hearing commences, virtually anything said by the judge, lawyers, and witnesses on the stand can be reported verbatim, without fear of retribution. Like Parliament and the legislatures, what is heard is “privileged,” which means the laws of libel and slander, as they apply to all other stories, can only be invoked under the rarest of circumstances. Even the standard restriction-no outside information can be included in stories while the case is in progress-tends to work in the reporter’s favor: it prohibits further digging. Covering court, therefore, is usually a straightforward procedure. Such was not the case for journalists covering the well-publicized and sensational “cannibalism” hearing that began last fall in Hamilton, Ont.

The case involved two girls under the age of 16. They alleged that their natural parents (and later, the mother and her boyfriend) forced them to participate in a series of vile acts that included the ritualistic murder of other children in a graveyard, and cannibalism. The children related these stories to a foster mother in whose home they had been placed in February, 1985. She immediately passed the information on to the local Children’s Aid Society (CAS). The CAS, in turn, filed an application to make the girls wards of the Crown, and through that, a hearing ensued. During the hearing, horror stories began to surface.

The proceedings commenced in camera. Unified Family Court Judge Thomas Beckett followed the provision under Ontario’s Child Welfare Act in matters relating to child abuse. Child abuse was alleged, to say the least: the girls claimed they were forced by their parents to witness mutilations and dismemberments, to eat human flesh, and to participate in sexual orgies involving satanic rituals. They also alleged they were forced to perform oral sex, submit to vibrators being shoved into them, and to having faeces and urine smeared on them while a video camera rolled.

It was the kind of case that gets talked about. Eventually reporters began to hear some of the talk. The first journalist to hear about the case was a Hamilton Spectator reporter named Denis LeBlanc. LeBlanc heard about the hearing in early October. He sat in on two days of testimony, although he was not allowed to report on it, and then convinced his newspaper to take legal steps toward lifting the in camera restrictions. Brian MacLeod Rogers of the Toronto law firm Blake, Cassels and Graydon appeared before Judge Beckett on behalf of Southam Inc., the Spectator’s parent company, and won the right to cover the story on Oct. 8. He cited The Child Welfare Act, which provides for coverage by no more than two media organizations at anyone time. (The organizations can decide among themselves which two, or have it decided for them by the presiding judge.) Rogers also cited the Federal Charter of Rights and Freedoms which, since its enactment in 1982, has increasingly been used by media organizations to open in camera proceedings to coverage. The Spectator ran its first story in early October. It was picked up by The Canadian Press (CP) and immediately the competition began to seek similar access. Judge Beckett adjourned the hearing until Oct. 24, when he heard the new submissions.

Kathryn Feldman, the Toronto Star’s lawyer (also of Blake, Cassels and Graydon) explained that by the time the lawyers appeared collectively before Judge Beckett, “It wasn’t a matter of coverage, it was a matter of how much coverage.” Feldman said, “The main concern of the judge was that nothing be published which would identify the children or anyone connected with the children, including the social worker and psychiatrists.” In the end, Jldge Beckett agreed to allow reporting by all six organizations that had appeared before him on Oct. 24 -The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, The Hamilton Spectator, CBC, CHCH-TV, and CHML (a Hamilton radio station).

The Toronto Sun sent its lawyer before Judge Beckett a week later, but this time coverage was refused. “We weren’t aware the judge would be limiting seating,” said John Paton, the Sun’s city editor. “The story wasn’t very interesting in the beginning.” Paton said the judge’s ruling was unfair because it allowed the Sun’s two competitors, the Globe and the Star, to do what the Sun was prevented from doing. Although the Sun was told it could appeal the judge’s decision, it didn’t. “By the time an appeal date was set, the case would be over,” explained Paton. The Sun ended up using CP wire stories instead.

“I would have preferred to see all news organizations get a fair crack at the case but I could see the judge’s concern,” said Kathleen Kenna, the Star reporter who covered the case. “He was worried that a large number of reporters meant just that many more people who could give out details [by word of mouth].” Kenna, the Star’ Ontario beat reporter for just over a year, recalled how emotionally draining the Hamilton case was. “It was hard to listen to the sexual abuse allegations, especially as a woman, because they are female children. You just can’t imagine,” she said with a disgusted look. She added quickly that because she was in court all day and had to concentrate on the very involved testimony, she didn’t get much time to reflect on what she was hearing. “I had to be careful just to get who was saying what to whom.”

Kevin Marron, the Hamilton freelancer who covered the case for the Globe, agreed. “There was no time to worry about emotions. You professionally shelve them. It’s later in the day, when the work is done, that you say, ‘My God, what did I hear today?'”

Each reporter had an incident imbedded in his or her mind of a time during the case they found particularly difficult. “It was the video tapes of the children [in therapy with il1e psychiatrist] that got to me,” Marron said. “I found it haunting.” Marron had previously covered murder trials in which he had heard gory testimony but he had never seen any victim going through such trauma before. “I would go home at night and hear the voices of the children ringing in my head.”

Kenna, on the other hand, recalled the time the natural mother’s psychiatric evaluation was shown to the court on video. The woman was telling the psychiatrist about the sexual and physical abuse she had experienced as a child. “The mother cried in court for most of the time,” Kenna said. “It was heart wrenching to watch someone listening to her past, to something most of us won’t ever experience.”

After the first few stories, Kenna and the Star began to impose their own restrictions on her reportage. “I wasn’t told to cool it, but the editing showed,” Kenna said. An early front-page story, which appeared Oct. 29, contained most of the children’s allegations, complete with graphic details much as they were presented in court. But after the STar’s switchboard and its ombudsman’s office were swamped with calls from shocked readers the following day, the graphic details were dropped from future stories. From that point forward, Kenna and the Star referred only to “bizarre sexual allegations,” without details, in deference to their readers.

Marron said his stories were edited for space and that his detailed descriptions were also replaced. He continued to include details of the sexual abuse, knowing his stories would be heavily edited; at least his editor would know the extent of what was heard in court.

By exercising their discretion, Kenna, Marron and other journalists who reported the “cannibalism” hearing established that even the most bizarre and sexually twisted case need not be an occasion for a media circus. Along with their organizations, they went beyond judicial restrictions and imposed their own judgments. The question is, however, did the public really need to know what the media contended was its right to know? “Sexual abuse is much more common than we care to think,” Kenna replied. “And that’s why we, as a newspaper, felt strongly about the coverage. I’m sorry if it made people sick in their cornflakes, but if these things do happen, maybe the public should know about it.”