Almost anyone who has spent time online has probably had the misfortune of coming across an Internet troll. These are people who seem to delight in aggravating others by posting hurtful, offensive, or inflammatory comments. While some trolls have no problem doing this using their actual names, plenty more take the cowardly way out by using anonymous accounts in hopes of avoiding real world responsibility for their actions.
Many of us have learned to ignore these vile individuals (“Don’t feed the trolls,” and “Don’t read the comments”) to starve them of the attention and reaction they crave. But some people targeted by online abuse don’t have this option. When a troll’s actions cross the line that separates what is merely unpleasant from what is libellous, harassing, or threatening, the person on the receiving end of the abuse may want or need to respond in some way. In the most serious cases, that response may involve civil lawsuits or even criminal charges.
Jellinek Ellis Gluckstein lawyer Ivanna Iwasykiw recently drew national media attention to a case involving one of her clients who has been targeted by unrelenting online abuse following her decision to report that she had been sexually abused by a well-known Oakville pastor. After trying unsuccessfully to get digital media platforms to remove libellous content that invaded her privacy, Iwasykiw used a court order to prompt action. When the anonymous individual(s) continued their campaign against her client, she then turned to an obscure legal tool of last resort to help identify the person or people behind the online accounts perpetrating this harassment.
In this blog post, I describe the client’s case, outline why such a legal tool was necessary and, most importantly, explain why such tools can give sexual abuse and sexual harassment survivors confidence to come forward in their own quest for justice.
Abuse by an authority figure.
The harassment started after our client, a former member of the southern Ontario megachurch The Meeting House (TMH), came forward to report that Bruxy Cavey sexually abused her when she sought counselling from him in his role as a church pastor. The woman, who now uses the pseudonym ‘Hagar’ to protect her privacy, reported the abuse to church leadership in late 2021.
Following an investigation, in March 2022 the church found the Cavey’s actions “constituted an abuse of [his] power and authority as a member of the clergy and amounted to sexual harassment.” Although he complied with the church’s request to resign his position, he sought to garner public sympathy with a now-removed blog post alleging that what had happened had been adultery, not abuse. Cavey was later arrested by the Hamilton Police Service and charged with sexual assault. Cavey is set to stand trial in February 2024.
An anonymous campaign.
After Cavey resigned, anonymous individuals believed to be members of the church who supported Cavey, demanded TMH leadership delete online posts which supported Hagar’s claims. The harasser or harassers threatened to take matters into their own hands if TMH did not retract its position on Cavey. TMH remained firm. Posts were made on YouTube, Reddit and Facebook alleging to identify Hagar’s real-world identity. These posts also started the campaign of malicious attacks against Hagar personally. The troll(s) focused on exposing not only Hagar’s identity but also campaigned to get the public to believe that Hagar is a liar and that her decision to come forward is an act calculated to punish Cavey. These posts are clearly intended to cause Hagar harm and humiliation and destroy her reputation. Attempts to block the videos and to suspend these users’ accounts via direct reports to the social media platforms had limited success. Much like a game of whack-a-mole, new anonymous accounts popped up to post videos and comments on different platforms any time a post or account was taken down. In some cases, the accounts were not taken down at all.
Hagar turned to the police, but they initially declined to help as the posts did not contain direct threats against her person or safety. At the time of her initial report, the police also told Hagar they could not lay charges unless they know the real-world identity of the person or persons behind the posts.
Iwasykiw attempted to get the social media platforms to reveal the identities of the person or persons operating the various anonymous accounts. In all cases, Iwasykiw hit a wall. She was told that unless compelled by the police or courts, social media platforms will not divulge information that can be used to identify their users.
It became clear that identifying the real person or people behind this campaign was the only way to ensure Hagar was free of the fear and distress. After months of trying and failing to determine the identities behind the accounts, Iwasykiw turned to an underutilized tool to get the court’s assistance.
Named after a case involving a British company that attempted to get customs officials to identify someone importing their patented chemical for use in chicken feed, a Norwich order is a type of order for disclosure whereby a court can compel a third-party to reveal information necessary to further the interest of justice, and especially to protect someone’s privacy or safety.
To issue such an order in a case like Hagar’s, the court had to be satisfied that:
- It was the only reasonable way to establish a person’s identity to permit a civil action to be filed or to protect another person’s privacy.
- The unidentified individuals were not responsive to repeated attempts to contact them for this purpose.
- Third parties with information that could be used to help identify these individuals would not provide it voluntarily.
In the end, the court agreed the conditions for a Norwich order were met. At the time of writing, Iwasykiw had just received the last of the information the social media companies were asked to produce.
Still more work ahead.
As all this sleuthing and work at court was happening, the individual or individuals responsible for these defamatory posts continued their campaign on other platforms… and expanded their targets. Iwasykiw and others identified in court documents and in the press began receiving offensive communications from anonymous user(s) sent through accounts using a variety of crude email addresses.
The posts and emails sometimes came in larger waves that coincided with key events in the case, but Iwasykiw says there has been a consistent stream throughout the past year. She suspects the determination and persistence of the individual(s) is likely linked to the religious aspect of this case. With a well-known faith figure being challenged, the person/people responsible may feel as if their own faith is being tested.
Virtually all the email addresses used are from the website “protonmail” - a provider famous for its encryption and one that is housed in a jurisdiction beyond the reach of Canadian courts. Iwasykiw has explained that the person or people behind this defamation are taking great pains to hide their identity, which elevates the harassment from unpleasant to malicious. Iwasykiw says that attempts to hide their identity will do little to assist them in the long run.
The sustained nature of the campaign has given the police enough of a basis to consider laying criminal defamatory libel charges. The potential for criminal charges allows police to direct their own resources to help identify the person or people responsible. Whether or not they can help has yet to be determined.
Fortunately, additional Norwich orders can provide information that will help corroborate evidence already obtained and refine the search. The path to justice is long but nearing its end.
Harassment of this nature is one of the reasons survivors can be afraid of coming forward.
In this case, the harassment had an absolutely devastating effect. Prior to these posts, two other women had come forward to allege Cavey had sexually abused them and to request TMH investigate. Up to 38 more women later came forward to report that Cavey and/or other members of TMH pastoral team had sexually abused them. After the posts went up, all but two of these women quietly faded away. Stopping the harassment is critical to ensuring survivors feel safe in coming forward to seek justice.
Even then, if there were no other survivors, protecting Hagar is critically important. Hagar is suffering the stress of this harassment daily and deserve to feel safe in her pursuit of justice.
Iwasykiw says she greatly admires Hagar’s strength through all of this, particularly her willingness to speak about her experiences to others. Hagar’s perseverance shows other survivors who may be experiencing similar attempts to intimidate and silence their voices that there is hope.
Survivors can take some comfort in how the system is working.
Legal tools, like a Norwich order that compels third parties to provide information necessary to pursue justice, are available to help protect survivors of sexual abuse and sexual assault. Too often survivors are dissuaded from coming forward to seek justice out of fear that they’ll lose their privacy, have the abuse forever tied to their reputation, or suffer life-long harassment.
As imperfect as it can be, our legal system does have tools that help survivors. Combined with the important strides our judiciary and police forces have been making by becoming more attuned and sensitive to survivors, these tools are giving advocates like Iwasykiw ways to bring people like Hagar’s harassers to justice.
If you or a loved one is a sexual abuse or sexual harassment survivor and you would like to know more about your options for obtaining justice and compensation for what has been done to you, please contact our office for a no cost, no obligation consultation. All information you provide will be kept strictly confidential.