Saturday, September 7, 1996

Doug Ward

Police are alleging that Bennest had a secret life

It's been said that we all have three lives: a public one, a private one and a secret one.

William Bennest, 52, led an exemplary public life. He was a popular, enthusiastic teacher and principal with an unblemished record of 25 years of service in the Burnaby school system.

Bennest also led a private life — he was a gay man, and had an exemplary record of service in that community. Bennest helped organize the Gay Games held in Vancouver in 1990. He sat on the games' board of directors and donated $1,000 to the event.

The police are alleging that Bennest also had a secret life beyond his public and private lives. They say he collected and produced child pornography and had sexual contact with minors.

This clandestine life is a secret no longer and professional colleagues, neighbors and friends, gay and straight, are grappling with its dramatic exposure.

Burnaby school board superintendant Elmer Froese said that teachers and administrators who knew Bennest are still shattered by what they didn't know him.

"I just came from a room where there are people who are as close to Bill Bennest as anyone can be professionally and did holidays together and some of those people are in a state of denial," said Froese Friday.

"They asked us: Is there a chance that this can be a mistake? And we answered — based on what we know — we think no. And there was devastation. Absolute devastation."

Froese said most of his colleagues — though not all — were unaware that Bennest was gay. Froese said Bennest's sexual orientation was not part of his persona at Burnaby schools.

"He had a private life like all of us do. I don't think it was hidden. But he was not like some people who wear their whole life on their sleeve.

"Nor was it clandestine. I did find out that there people who were aware of his orientation. And others who found out said: 'No big deal.' This is 1996. Probably in 1975 it would have been different."

Bennest, the suspended principal of Clinton Elementary School, had been a principal for 12 years, five of them at Clinton. He graduated from high school in Oliver, in southeast B.C. and was hired directly out of the University of B.C. teaching program in 1971.

After taking a leave to complete a masters' degree, he was promoted to principal at Rosser Elementary in 1984 and transferred to Clinton in 1990. He had a reputation for working with "gifted" children and his record was perfect.

So was his reputation in the solidly middle-class, tree-lined west-side Vancouver block where he owned a home. Neighbors described him as a quiet but friendly person. He had a cat and an immaculate garden. One neighbor described him as someone you would trust with your child with or exchange small talk with over the fence.

One neighbor who refused to be identified said: "He was a nice guy. I'm in a lot of pain about this. I did like him. I do like him."

Bennest's next-door neighbor, Dr. Gabor Mate, declined to talk about him. But Mate said that as a child of the Holocaust, he is not shocked by the contradictions in human behavior.

"I've long ago come to terms with the fact that human beings are capable of extremes of good and evil and that in many people there may be a mix of both."

Mate said Bennest appeared to be a man who "was genuinely good and positive in his life and people have benefited."

He added: "But, if these charges are right, he also had a dark side, that he hadn't resolved, and it got the better of him. And while any children or families harmed by him deserve support and emphathy, he also deserves empathy."

Another neighbor, Lori Roth, is producing a film on the sexual exploitation of children. She had never seen her neighbor. She had just returned from an international conference in Stockholm this week only to learn that an alleged source of child pornography was literally behind her back yard.

"It's tragic," said Roth. "But I think that what this might do is open people's yes to the fact that the monster is not a horned devil."

Gay journalist Dan Gawthrop recalled Bennest as a low-key type, rarely seen in gay clubs but active in gay sports.

"He struck me, as did other people on the Gay Games board, as a small-c conservative gay who was not the activist type. They all seemed, at least initially, worried about a lot of public exposure because of their jobs."

Bennest was instrumental in bringing the Gay Games to Vancouver. He was also past-president of the Vancouver Gay Volleyball Association, founding member of the the Vancouver Gay and Lesbian Summer Games and Metropolitan Vancouver Athletics and Arts Association.

Bill Amundson, a member of the Gay Games board, was a good friend of Bennest who travelled with the principal to Mexico and the Gulf Islands.

"He was a great guy," said Amundson. "Just about all of my friends know him. He's very well-known. And everyone is very shocked."

He added: "I just find this whole thing completely out of character. It's absolutely incredible."

Another Gay Games board member, Mary Brookes, was similarly upset: "I was very shocked. If the allegations are untrue then the guy's had his life destroyed for him.

"If the allegations are the truth, then like any other abuser of children then I wish him to rot in hell."

Brookes said the arrest has sent shock waves through Vancouver's gay community. Many fear the affair could prompt an anti-gay backlash — something she feels is unfair.

"The reality is that 97 per cent of pedophiles are heterosexual. And when a heterosexual pedofile is caught, every heterosexual doesn't go oh, that's a bad example for our community. Bill Bennest can't represent all gay people or all white males."

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Created: September 7, 1996
Last modified: November 26, 2000
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