BRIDGEWATER, N.S. – This small Nova Scotia town is reckoning with the long shadow of a criminal prosecution involving so many of its children.
Under a national spotlight because of an intimate photo ring that ensnared more than two dozen teenagers — some as young as 13 — Bridgewater is now trying to find a way to move on.
On Wednesday, a judge handed conditional discharges to six young men who had shared 19 girls’ images on Dropbox without consent.
But in his decision, Judge Paul Scovil implicitly acknowledged the case’s profound impact on the town — and chastised those who gossiped about the girls.
Scovil said the young men had accepted responsibility, but others in the town blamed the victims.
During sentencing, he relayed comments from the mother of one victim who called the experience “complete hell.”
“She described walking into meetings to hear co-workers talking about the Dropbox and calling the girls ‘sluts’ and ‘whores’ and listening to comments such as ‘What kind of parents are they, to have their daughters involved in such a thing?'” said Scovil, adding that the woman eventually took a leave of absence from work over the constant gossip.
Bridgewater Mayor David Mitchell said Thursday his constituents needed to find a way to end the judgments.
“This is a small community where people know the victims and people know the perpetrators,” said Mitchell in an interview. “There has to be some caution in our community that we’re not going to go down a road of ruining lives through gossip and public shaming.
“It doesn’t move us forward as a town. It’s not productive. For the victims, we need to move on as they are moving on.”
The case of the six young Bridgewater men was one Canada’s largest involving a relatively untested law introduced in 2015 to combat the non-consensual sharing of intimate images. The law came after the suicide of Nova Scotia teen Rehtaeh Parsons, whose family says a photo of her allegedly being sexually assaulted was circulated among students at her school in Cole Harbour.
The six boys — whose identities are protected from publication under the Youth Criminal Justice Act — made headlines country-wide as their case wound its way through the court, drawing the ire of the community of roughly 8,500 on the province’s South Shore.
In an agreed statement of facts, the girls cited a variety of motivations for sending the images. Some young women felt pressured by what they described as persistent requests for intimate images, while others said they were vying for boys’ affections or just joking around, the statement said.
Mitchell said the problems revealed by the case weren’t unique to Bridgewater.
“Having our town in the national spotlight for something like this, it’s disheartening. For some, it’s been maddening,” he said.
“But this can happen to anyone. These weren’t bad kids, and it still happened. It could happen anywhere. Kids today face social pressures that we as adults simply did not have and probably don’t fully comprehend. To move forward, we need to talk to our kids about what happened because it’s happening everywhere in the country.”
During Wednesday’s sentencing, Scovil said the young men’s actions and the overall reaction from the community has brought “pain and anguish” upon the young girls.
None of the girls were present in court as Scovil appeared to allude to Parsons’ suicide.
“We in Nova Scotia have recent experience on a very tragic level dealing with young women who have had their intimate pictures exposed to others,” said Scovil.
“It’s discouraging that (society), after all we have gone through in this province, would still look to women and blame them for what took place.”
He took defence lawyers to task for arguing in their joint submission that the girls should have known photos shared through Snapchat could have been saved. He said that wrongfully blamed the victims.
“Such thinking and such comments harken back to a time of sexual stereotyping that anyone who has been offended against sexually must have put themselves in that position and be asking for it,” said Scovil. “I wish to make it clear to each and every one of the victims and their families: These girls did nothing wrong. It is not their fault.”
But defence lawyer Stan MacDonald said that was not the intent of their arguments. He said what the six lawyers did was present an “alternative view.”
“At no point in time did we make any attempt whatsoever to blame any victims. I take issue with the comments that the judge made,” said MacDonald outside of court on Wednesday.
The boys, who are all from the Bridgewater area, admitted to forming a private Facebook group to exchange photos of the girls, who ranged in age from 13 to 17.
Scovil acknowledged that the young men involved in the incident have completed a restorative justice program and have showed remorse for their actions.
“I strongly stress that at no time did these young men attempt in any way to place blame on the victims. I am very appreciative of that. The same, however, cannot be said in relation to both (defence) counsel submissions on their behalf and the community at large,” he said.
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