The openly gay pastor who performed the first same-sex marriages in Canada has been charged with sexually assaulting a male 40-odd years ago.
Brent Hawkes was to appear in a courtroom Monday in Kentville, N.S., in relation to the assault that police allege occurred in the 1970s. He has been charged with offences from that era’s Criminal Code: indecent assault on a male and gross indecency.
The RCMP in Nova Scotia would not give any further details about the alleged crimes or age of the victim. The plea date was postponed until April 13.
Hawkes, who is a member of the Order of Canada, responded with a written statement, saying “I want to be crystal clear: I am innocent of these allegations. The purported events simply did not take place.”
His statement continued: “For 38 years, I have fought, with all that I have, for equality for my community. I have fought to give voice to those without voice.
“Now I will fight, with all that I have, these accusations. This time, however, my fight will be different; this time I will allow others to give voice for me.”
Hawkes, the senior pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto, is being represented by well-known civil rights lawyer Clayton Ruby.
To call Hawkes a leader of the gay rights movement in Canada would be an understatement. He has spent much of his professional life speaking out against discrimination toward homosexuals.
He is perhaps best known for performing the first same-sex marriage ceremonies in 2001, four years before the Canadian government legalized gay marriage. (The marriages he performed were deemed legal in Ontario courts in 2003.)Hawkes wore a bulletproof vest under his vestments and was protected during the service by 12 bodyguards.
In another milestone for the country’s LGBT community, he officiated at the state funeral of Jack Layton in 2011. The federal NDP leader had always greeted him by asking about his husband, Hawkes said. Then Hawkes leaned down toward Stephen Harper in the front row of Roy Thomson Hall and said, “Hi, Canadian Prime Minister. How’s Laureen doing?”
Hawkes, 65, is married to John Sproule, a retired computer programmer. They have been together for 34 years.
Raised in New Brunswick, Hawkes came to Toronto in 1976 after noticing an ad for the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto in the gay magazine The Advocate. By the next year, he was the church’s openly gay pastor and he has retained the position every since. The church is part of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches and calls itself an inclusive church with roots in the LGBT community.
After police raided four gay Toronto bathhouses in 1981 and arrested more than 300 men in the largest mass arrest since the War Measures Act was invoked during the 1970 October Crisis, Hawkes went on a hunger strike to demand an inquiry.
His church was at the epicentre of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, with members of its congregation offering hospice care and Hawkes overseeing funeral ceremonies when many other churches refused.
On Monday, the church’s board released a statement supporting Hawkes. “The Board of MCC Toronto knows Rev. Hawkes as a man of high integrity and an inspirational community leader who has led MCC Toronto for 38 years in its quest for tolerance and inclusiveness,” the statement reads. “Brent has our steadfast support.”
The ancient vague crime of “gross indecency” was historically used to charge gay men for their sexual practices, according to University of Ottawa law professor Constance Backhouse. Before it was removed from the Criminal Code in 1985, it carried a five-year prison sentence.
The second charge, “indecent assault on a male,” carried a possible 10-year prison sentence and a whipping, before it was repealed in the early 1980s. (According to Backhouse, while whipping was still on the books, it had long fallen out of use.)