November is National Adoption Month. Last week, I talked to Wendy, a Canadian mental health professional who was adopted in the early 80’s and met her first mother at the age of 29. Wendy is Black, and her adoptive parents are white.
Our conversation (which has been edited for length and clarity) began when I first asked her if my perception was accurate, that we’re much more likely to hear the testimony of adoptive parents, than the stories of adoptees.
W: Yes. Among the adoptee community, that is our biggest complaint, esepcially during National Adoption Awareness Month. Did anybody ask us?
It’s quite appalling, the extent to which people who are hoping to adopt only want to hear the positive side; they only want to hear the fairy tale. And if you say, “That’s not the whole story,” they don’t want to hear it. We are called names, we’re gaslit, we’re told to get therapy.
On certain platforms, whenever I open my mouth to say, “Okay, but adoption is not a fairy tale” at 8:30 in the morning, I put my phone down, and by lunch time there are twenty-five people calling me bitter, angry, and ungrateful. Here we go, another day on social media as an adopted adult.
Why are people so unwilling to hear it?
W: Adoption is an industry. The industry has to advertise itself.
As an entire society, we have really bought hard into this “adoption is a beautiful option,” especially in pro-life circles. It’s, “If you can’t parent, here’s this almost uncomplicated, beautiful option.”
If I say to an adoptive parents, “No, it’s not beautiful, and it’s very complicated,” what they’re not saying, but what I hear, is, “I thought we were doing a good thing, and you’re telling me we’re not. If you’re telling me all of this is true about adoption, then all of this is true of what my child has experienced. But my child is happy to be adopted, and my child is well-adjusted.”
I would have told you the same thing until I was 34 years old.
W: We have this phrase called “coming out of the fog.” In oversimplified terms, it refers to realizing adoption is not a fairy tale. As an adopted person, you get this narrative growing up: “We chose you from all the other children to be part of our family; isn’t that special?” You have to explain it to children in a way they can digest, and people want to make it a good story for a child. They tell it as a fairy tale, so you grow up thinking, yup, it’s a fairy tale.
The other part of the story for me is, I am a transracial adoptee, which means I’m of a different race from my adoptive parents. My adoption is very visible. I’m a Black woman with a very Irish last name.
Growing up, people ask you, “Are you adopted?” It’s amazing the questions people think they have a right to ask. You’re coached to answer the questions as a fairy tale. Looking back, those were very intrustive questions they had no right to ask, but I was encouraged to answer them, because it’s such a beautiful story. That’s the lens I had for the longest time.
Even while having that lens, there were times, from the age of 11 or 12, that I would have these very negative emotions that didn’t seem to be attached to anything. My life is fine; why am I feeling like this?
I was 20 or 21 and I realized I was not a big fan of my birthday. On the day, I didn’t want anyone to talk to me, I didn’t want to make a big deal of it, and I didn’t understand what that was.
Finally, years later, I said to a friend of mine: “As an adopted person, that’s the day I lost my first mother, and I do not feel like celebrating it.”
How did she react?
W: She was able to take it on board. Some people really are not. Some adoptive parents can’t get their heads around it. They want to celebrate their child’s life. But whether your child has realized it or not, it’s a day that marks loss. Of course, not every child feels like that; maybe not every adult feels like that.
Did you know other adoptees? When did you start realizing this was a common experience?
W: Other than three cousins, also adoptees — they are indigenous. The Sixties Scoop is most likely how they came into our family. I don’t have a lot of contact with them. One is not alive anymore. We’ve never had a conversation about adoption as adults.
It was as an adult, and it was on social media, that I had my first honest conversations about adoption. It’s interseting now to see new people come out of the fog, and the response you see over and over is, “I’m not weird; I’m not messed up. Everyone is telling me adoption is this beautiful thing, and I just thought there was something wrong with me.” No, there’s a whole other side to this.
What are some things your parents could have done differently, that would have given you a different experience? Or is it almost a rite of passage that everybody who’s adopted has to come to terms with at a certain age?
W: When I’m getting that backlash, the implication is that I should be grateful, and a lot of people want to run to the defense of my parents. They put a roof over my head and treated me like their own.
The thing that was missing is the realization that every single child who has been adopted, especially if it was not a kinship adoption [placement with relatives], has been traumatized by the separation from the first mother. The story started with trauma.
The phrase that’s often used is “Adoption is trauma.” Yes, it’s the trauma of separation. The more I think about it, the deeper I realize it goes.
People will say, “But you don’t remember. It’s not like you were five and dragged screaming away from your mother. You were a baby.” But if you know trauma, you know about preverbal trauma. You don’t have to be old enough to have a narrative of it, for it to affect you. It shows up in the body. I can’t tell you a story of what’s troubling me, but I’m feeling a certain way.
Then recently I was led to think about the effects ofprenatal trauma. If a woman is pregnant and is she is abused, or is experiencing poverty or food insecurity or is homeless … what’s the effect on the child she’s carrying?
It’s not so much what my parents could have done differently, it’s what the agency and adoption professionals could have done differently. I would bet my bottom dollar [my parents] were told, “Love will be enough. Take this child into your family and love her as your own, and everything will be fine.”
But if the trauma is there, and it absolutely is, you can’t love it away. But if you’re informed about how trauma works, and what a traumatized child needs, you can parent differently. When that trauma starts showing up, if you know why, maybe you don’t take it personally as parents.
A hopeful adoptive parent recently told me all she hears about adoption lately is trauma. She asked me if she should adopt. What I said is, If you’re not prepared for your child to look you in the face, a child you did your best to love and provide for, and for that child to say, “You’re not my real mother,” you’re not ready to adopt. If you can’t sit still for that, please don’t adopt.
Are you concerned that this will scare people away? That children who would get homes are not going to get homes, because of your cautions?
W: Maybe this is callous, but if my speaking honestly scares you off, you’re not suitable to adopt.
And I absolutely believe that. Until we get to a conversation where we can say adopted children carry the trauma of separation, and until thisconversation is happening at the industry level, we’re gonna get people who are surprised by this. We’re gonna get people who hear this talk about trauma and are scared away.
So what do we do about that?
This hopeful adoptive parent I was talking to said, “It sounds like you’re saying the whole system is rotten.”
I said, “Yeah, it’s rotten to the core.”
I say this because vulnerable women who approach adoption professionals, some health care professionals, some mental health professionals, are pressured and often shamed to give up their babies for a promise of a “better life” with other parents, instead of having a conversation about whether she wants to parent, what supports she would need in order to parent, whether there is any way to involve family or community so that she can keep her child.
There are many cases, more than most people know, and more than “adoption professionals” will admit, where a mother or the mother’s family could have cared for the child if supported to do so. But instead, we terminate parental rights, change the baby’s name, alter the birth certificate and put the child in someone else’s arms. It’s rotten to the core.
But until we arrive at adoption reform, this system is what we have. There are children who cannot safely remain with their parents. There are children who have already endured that trauma of separation, and are in foster care, and right now adoption is the way we provide care and permanency.
I don’t think adoption, the way we do it right now, is a good thing. Why do you need to erase someone’s indentity, ancestry, and history to provide them with stability and care? You don’t. But that’s what the adoption industry does. The unspoken idea is that if you erase a child’s history and identity, they can be easily inserted into a new family, and be “one of them” the way a biological chid is. But that adopted child already had a family and an ancestral history. That doesn’t cease to exist because someone altered some paperwork.
So for right now, it is what it is. There are kids that need care and permanency, and right now, we do that through the adoption system.
That’s my quandary, as a mental health professional. If you can’t recognize and support a traumatized child, you should not be parenting an adopted child. I will die on that hill. So what do we do with these children who are already in care and experiencing this instability? They need a solution. The current way we do adoption is not it.
What I hear a lot from foster parents is, “You might think you have to be the perfect parent and know exactly what to do, but you don’t. You just have to do your best, and be there for that child.” Are they wrong? Or is that situation just too different from adoption?
W: It’s in the same broad circle. The idea that you don’t have to be perfect, you just have to do the best you can, there is absolutely a lot to that.
You can’t go back and make that separation not happen. I think the best an adoptive parent can do is be willing to learn about the trauma that is inherent in adoption, and be willing to do the work to understand how to support a child who has been traumatized by the process.
That’s where the thick skin comes in. Do the work. Go to your own therapy. Talk to adopted adults. There are things you can to.
As a mental health professional, I get to have this moment where someone is sitting in front of me, and they’re experiencing depression or anxiety or OCD, and by the time they get to me, someone’s already given them a diagnosis, but no one has talked to them about what it means. I get to say to them: “Here’s what it means. Here’s what you might be experiencng.”
The facial expression, the relief in their voices: “You get it. You said it. It’s real. Someone understands.” I didn’t cure your depression; I just told you you weren’t going crazy. And so, with adoption, you can’t erase the trauna, but you can acknowledge it and support your child through it.
Can you tell me some more about your own circumstances, your birth mother?
W: I’m “one of the lucky ones.” I’m in reunion with my first mother.
Sorry, it’s “first mother,” not “birth mother?” How did you land with that term?
W: If I say “birth mother,” that feels like that’s the body I came out of, and then she ceased to matter. Well, she didn’t. Her absence mattered to me, and will matter until the day I die. And my absence mattered to her, from the day I was born, and will contine to matter to her until the day she dies.
“First mother” is like: I have a mother in the mother who raised me. But I had a mother before her, as well.
So you’re in reunion with your first mother? When did that happen?
W: I was able to contact her in 2011. I had just turned 28.
Did you express any interest in meeting her growing up?
W: Yes, but even when I was a kid, I could sense there was some discomfort around that. When it came out was when I was angry or upset: “You’re not my real family. I’m gonna go find my real family.”
But in addition to that, my parents had a very surprise baby when I was ten, and there were all these conversations about who that child looks like and takes after. I didn’t have any of that. I didn’t look like anyone.
I met my first half sister in 2002. We have similar mannarisms and similar brains, but we don’t look like sisters. Whereas my other half sister, I couldn’t stop staring at her. I was 28, and I had to say, “I’m sorry I keep staring at you, but you have my face.”
And growing up, what was it like, thinking about your first mother? Was there a longing?
W: A longing, and a wondering. I don’t think I uttered the phrase “you’re not my real parents” after the age of about 8, because I realized that it landed, and really landed really hurtfully. In a way an eight-year-old can, I realized that whatever else was going on, don’t say that.
But until I entered reunion, there was that longing. That’s really what I was feeling on my birthday, before I even realized it. That date brought it home.
How was it, meeting your first mother? It must have been a lot.
W: It was a lot. I don’t think I processed how much it was. I think I’m still processing how much it was.
We met in person in the summer of 2012. It was just so strange. Because so much of it was so normal. But meeting your first mother you’ve never met until the age of 29 is not normal. It’s not a normal thing to do. Yet all that happened was she hopped on a train and came to the city where I lived, and I met her outside this random building. I walked up to this woman, and this city does not have a lot of Black folks, so I knew who it was, even if I hadn’t seen her close enough up to realize she looks exactly like me.
I’m trying not to fall apart. We’re in the middle of the public square. I was physically shaking. Shewas extremely stoic; I was not. I was crying, but trying to hold it together. We embraced. We didn’t speak in the first moments. I bought her lunch, after. We just sat there and chatted. It was very strange that we were doing such normal things. I just kept looking at her, like, is this happening? Is this real?
It will never not be strange. Here’s the thing about reunion. It’s beautiful, and wonderful, and absolutely terrible, and heartwrenching, all at the same time. The intensity of it. Nothing else I’ve experienced has the strange intensity of being in reunion.
One of my sisters and I didn’t undersand how to be in each other’s lives. We fought, and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. Fighting with a sibling after being in reunion, it was terrible. We have to be very careful now.
It’s nature and nurture. We are both people who will argue that the grass is blue and the sky is green if we think we can carry it off. We have to be right. When two people like this get in a fight, it’s freaking ugly. And so at a certain point, I said, “I can’t talk to you. I’m in danger of saying something unforgiveable, and if I don’t, you will; so we’re not going to talk right now.” We didn’t talk for a year and a half.
You’ve had this longing for connection, authentic connection and belonging — the belonging is a really big piece — and then to fight with the person you finally experience it with? No thank you.
When that relationship went wrong, did it make you feel like there was something wrong with you, like maybe you don’t know how to have relationships with people?
W: This fighting was happening before I came out of the fog. I got the fairy tale ending with the reunion; how did this go so wrong? Is it me? Is there something wrong with me?
I’ve said to my first mother, “You and I, we cannot fight. We have to be able to have a conversation before it turns into a fight.”
There have been times when we had a miscommunication or missed contact] and I was having a reaction like, “You’re leaving me again!” and I’m in a panic. And I have said to her, “We can’t have a fight, because I will go out of my mind.
Is your first mother motherly to you? Does she perform the function of a mother, or is it a different kind of relationship?
W: This is one of the griefs I carry. When we have those moments when she’s acting in a motherly way, that brings into sharp relief the relationship we lost. Even though we have those moments, we can’t get back what we lost. She is my first mother, but she wasn’t my mother for 28 years. You can’t come into somebody’s life when they’re twenty-eight and be their mother, you just can’t.
This may be a loaded question, but do you call yourself a pro-lifer?
W: I consider myself pro-life. I’m not a huge fan of that term. That has more to do with what comes out of the mouths of other people that associate themselves with that term. One of the arguments pro-lifers come at me with is, “Well, would you rather have been aborted?” No,and if you see those two options in such a black and white dichotomy, you’re not very intellectually flexible, are you?
I’ll say that, as a Catholic and someone who is pro-life and as an adopted person, and someone who sees this tension and the trauma that is inherent, I find myself in a very precarious position.
The adult adoptee community are vehemently prochoice. I can see exactly why. For some adopted people, they’ve been so affected by this trauma, some will say, “Yeah, it might have been better for me if I had never been born, than to live in this much pain.” And then there’s the concern that if someone does not want to carry a child and give birth, they should not be forced to; they should have that option to terminate. And from a bodily automomy perspective, I can see that. But as a Catholic, I see that new life, that soul. If I weren’t Catholic, I would probably be pro-choice. I probably wouldn’t have been, until I came out of the fog.
I am the only practicing Catholic in my immediate family, one of two in my extended family. The story of my Catholicism is a whole other story. The bottom line is, by the time I came out of the fog, if I hadn’t been Catholic, that would have been the end of me being prolife. And though I am, I make a lot of Catholics angry by saying I don’t think legal prohibition of abortion is a good answer.
As vehemently as I am prolife, I can absolutely see the other side. I can see both sides, and when both sides dig in their heels, this is how we don’t make progress. Both sides are busy screaming at each other and vilifying each other.
Wendy, I appreciate you sharing all these personal things with me.
W: Well, nobody’s been telling me to get therapy or calling me a horrible ungrateful wretch, so this is new, this is good. The funny thing about the “get therapy” thing is that good therapy is the reason I’m able to have this conversation in this way.
That’s one of my things. Adoptive parents, go to therapy. I know you don’t think you need it, but you freaking do. Don’t you dare adopt a child until you’ve been to therapy.
That surprises me. I would kind of assume that people would.
W: I don’t know what the process is like now, when someone approaches an agency to adopt a child. I’m so interested to know if it’s suggested, strongly suggested, required?
When the older of my half sisters and I first connected, before we were allowed to talk to each other, we were supposed to have 4 or 6 separate [therapy] sessions about this reunion experience. Then there was this other option, where they would send you all this reading material, and you had to sign sworn statement that you had read it and don’t have questions. I’m waiving any right to say I was harmed by this process, because I’ve chosen not to do the therapy.
Who required this?
W: Family and Children’s Services. You could ask to be named on the adoption registery, and if someone else who they could trace as being related to you was also named, you would get this official letter that this relative has also registestered. If you‘d like to have contact, you can.
There was a social worker assigned to our case. She could talk to my sister and she could talk to me, but we weren’t allowed to talk to each other until either the therapy was complete, or we’d signed that waiver. I called the social worker one time, and my sister was in the office, but it was against the law to talk to each other. It’s against the law for me to talk to my flesh and blood sister.
There was another time. I got what’s referred to as “non identifying information about my first mother and her family. It was biographical information without identifying details, and it was like, pastimes and hobbies and how tall they were. No medical information; why would I need that? That’s another fun thing, when you have medical mysteries going on, and you go to the doctor and they say, “Do you have a family history of this?” and you say, “I don’t freaking know.”
The other time this weird gate keeping happened, was I was already in reuinion with my first mother, and I thought, what happens now if I ask for non-identifying information? Because the one I had from when my parents requested was so redacted, whole paragraphs were missing.
So I requested it again in 2011. I called the F and CS office in my hometown and was told, “When you come in and pick it up, we’ll have you sit down with a counsellor. There’s information you might find distressing.”
I told her, “Let me tell you, I have met my first mother, and she told me the story, and yeah, it’s pretty damn distressing. Whatever’s in that document, I already know about it, because she told me. If I have to get therapy, I’ll get therapy. I live five hours away; I’m not coming in to do therapy five hours away. Mail the documents, please.”
Finally I had to write a whole letter saying I understand there’s distressing information in this file, I probably aready know it, and I’m releasing you from any liability if I’m emotionally damaged; now give me my freaking documents.
And they were still redacted.
It’s your history, and they’re keeping it from you. That must feel so strange.
W: You get that growing up. I knew my parents knew more than they were telilng me, because of this non-identifying information.
It’s my information; how am I not ready to have it? Some of it would have been pretty difficult to find an age appropriate way to say that, but by the time I was thirteen or fifteen. Tell me something.
When people say, “Why are you so angry?” I am. It’s that erasure of history. That erasure of ancestry. That erasure of identity. It’s actually not necessary to provide care and stability to someone. But the adoption industry wouldn’t thrive without it. Because it has to be the fairytale where you live happily ever after with a new family. No one wants to talk about what you lost, first.
By Damien Fisher with additional reporting by Simcha Fisher
Uwe Lieflander used his position as a youth choir leader, music teacher, and college professor to spend years grooming the child he is accused of sexually assaulting when she became a young adult.
Lieflander’s alleged predation didn’t happen in a vacuum. The members of his small Canadian community, parents of his students, colleagues, and even a priest ignored red flags and explained away the behavior that Lieflander himself likened to grooming, and he was welcomed back to work with children even after the victim said he raped her.
Lieflander, 59, is now a fugitive from justice, having left Canada in 2017 for his native Germany before warrants were issued for his arrest. He now records YouTube travel videos under the name “The Vespa Idiot,” and some of the people and institutions that harbored him have yet to reckon with his abuse.
Sam, now in her late 20s, grew up in a large, strict, Catholic family in the Barry’s Bay, Ontario area.
“My whole family are ultra-conservative Catholic,” Sam said.
She said the family practiced a sort of manichaean, patriarchal faith, believing that the body is bad and shameful, and women and children are meant to be silent.
Barry’s Bay in Madawaska Valley is home to a community of Polish immigrants who practiced an old-style form of Catholicism, but in the 1990s that started to change. New groups of traditional-minded Catholics began moving into the rural and isolated region, including apocalyptic novelist Michael O’Brien, and an early iteration of the right-wing Lifesite News.
Some moved to the Madawaska Valley region to escape what they were sure was going to be the end-of-civilization event of Y2K; others came to build a traditional community. It was there, in Barry’s Bay, that Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Academy was founded in 1999. The young college with a handful of students made its place sometimes in the very homes of the local Catholic families, like Sam’s, who allowed the school to hold classes on their property. Sam’s family became enmeshed with the school, and it was Our Lady Seat of Wisdom that employed Lieflander.
Sam agreed to share her story, and supply supporting documentation and contemporaneous witnesses. Her real name will not be used, and some information that could identify her will be obscured in this article.
Our Lady Seat of Wisdom was originally founded to offer one-year degrees for mostly homeschooled students. The school’s unaccredited degrees were generally not recognized by other colleges, and for a long time the school served as a feeder program for larger Catholic colleges such as Christendom, Franciscan University of Steubenville, and Thomas Aquinas College.
The college’s motto is Veritas Vos Liberabit: “The Truth will set you free.”
The school’s program continue to grow. In 2017, the Canadian Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development granted the school the right to offer Bachelor’s degrees. And this year, demonstrating the school’s continued growing acceptance by the mainstream community, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pembroke agreed to allow Our Lady Seat of Wisdom theology professors Scott Nicholson and John Paul Meenan to teach remote catechism classes for the diocese.
Sam was 15 when she first saw a performance by one of Lieflander’s youth choirs, known as a “Sparrows” choir, at a nearby Catholic parish in the fall of 2008. Lieflander was then a part-time music teacher at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom, and he operated several Sparrows Choirs throughout Ontario. He also founded the Sacred Music Society in Ottawa.
Around 2008, Sam longed to be part of the charismatic Lieflander’s Sparrows choir operating in Barry’s Bay. She wanted to learn about music, but also sought some kind of escape from her deeply dysfunctional home life.
Although she was too young to attend college, she was allowed to join Lieflander’s Sparrows choir, and she also took private lessons for him at the college, which he used as a base for his private work. He also taught at several Catholic schools. He presented himself as a caring person, an “uncle” figure who looked after his students. Sam said there was a pattern of Lieflander forging especially deep connections with vulnerable children like her.
“Once you were one of his favorites, you really felt important,” she said.
Lieflander’s lessons included probing into her home life, and also his trademark method of touching children during rehearsal as part of his teaching method.
“There was a lot of touch,” Sam said about her lessons. Lieflander taught over 14,000 students.
Lieflander is described as a musical genius who could draw out remarkable performances from children. He would place his hands on them as they sang, in order to get them to understand where the sound was coming from.
A few Sparrows parents were uncomfortable with the practice, but most accepted the explanation that touching was necessary to his method, according to our source. He would also have children sit on his lap, and routinely played “chasing” and “grabbing” games with them. Around 2015 and 2016, a small number of parents involved with Lieflander’s choirs pushed for him to stop touching children as part of his singing education.
When a small number of parents confronted Lieflander about his unorthodox teaching style and demanded that he change, Lieflander reportedly pushed back. Lieflander, who liked to consider himself something of a friendly uncle to his students, told the parents he had studied the grooming process of child abusers and determined there were 12 steps abusers used, the source said.
“I do all 11 of them, but not the 12th,” Lieflander reportedly said, according to our source.
The source said so many parents and others let their guards down around Lieflander, in part because he was so open and brazen about his behavior. In retrospect, he may have been bullet proofing himself against any accusations that might come out, our source said.
As Sam and Lieflander’s student-teacher relationship intensified, he began discussing her home and family life in more detail. When she was 16 and 17, Lieflander decided that her family was not up to the task of caring for Sam, and he told her he was going to take greater control of her life, for her own good. Sam’s home life did not improve during the next couple of years, and her mental health spiraled. She started cutting, and Lieflander began encouraging her to run away from home.
At 18 she fled to a relative, but her emotional crisis did not abate, and after several months she went to what was billed as a Catholic rehabilitation facility in Florida. Sam spent two years there before she returned home to Barry’s Bay.
It was 2014, Sam was 21, and numb from her years in Florida at a center that she described as a cult. Severe dysfunction still plagued her family. Soon after she got back, she went to another Sparrows concert and Lieflander picked up with her where he left off, making her feel both special and dependent on him.
“I was still in awe of him,”she said.
She restarted music lessons with Lieflander and told him about her troubles. Lieflander directed her to call him “Dad.” He told her he would make all decisions for her, and that he expected her total obedience.
“He completely took control,” she said.
Over the summer of 2014, his control grew to include threats of emotional isolation if she ever disobeyed him, she said. He also persuaded her she was part of his family. She had to give his home address as her home address, for example, and he would randomly demand she recite it for him.
Lieflander got her to attend Our Lady Seat of Wisdom in the fall for a year, earning one of the one-year degrees the school granted in Christian Humanities. They held hands, and he told her she was his child, and that she was emotionally 11 years old, she said, and he continued to insist she call him “Dad.”
“I am going to let you be the child you were never allowed to be,” Sam recalls him telling her.
He also used the nearness of the school to exert more control over her, Sam said. As a student at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom, she had to check in with him on a daily basis, and he required that she have a bedtime that he set for her, she said. If she displeased him he would put her under a “house arrest,” she said.
As their relationship intensified, he started giving her 20-minute hugs in his office at the school, and had her sit in his lap so he could look down her shirt, she said. The encounters at school behind closed doors felt like a kind of molestation, Sam said. Lieflander told her to keep their relationship private, but at least one other Our Lady Seat of Wisdom staff member noticed an oddness to their relationship. When the subject was broached, the staffer said that the administrative response was: “That’s just Uwe.”
During her time at the school, Sam sometimes had emotional meltdowns, and Lieflander was allowed at least once to enter her dorm room and “put her to bed.” At the time, the school did not allow men and women to be in each other’s dorms. Only a family member, like a parent, would be allowed. The school denies knowing these bedtime visits happened, but one instance has been confirmed by a witness.
In 2015, Sam graduated with her one-year Christian Humanities diploma and started work in Ottawa as a nanny, but she kept seeing Lieflander, and would go back to the school with him. Lieflander continued to foster a controlling paternal relationship with Sam, telling her she needed him.
“He would say if withdrew his support for even 15 seconds, I would die,” she said.
He ramped up the sexual relationship as well. He started getting her to take her clothes off in front of him, so that he could “help her heal from her wounds,” she said.
“He told me he owns 51 percent of me, and I own 49 percent of me,” Sam said.
The sexual conduct finally escalated to rape, she said. It did not take place on campus. Sam did not want the details of the assault included in the story, but disclosed them in interviews with us, and her story is supported by the criminal charges brought by law enforcement.
During this time she started to self-harm again and she developed an eating disorder. Lieflander kept exerting control over her as a possessive father-figure, she said.
“He would say “I always know what’s best for you and what you want, because I own you and you can’t live without me,” Sam said. “He said I was a nymphomaniac because he was too, I had his DNA because I was his daughter, so I was, too.”
It was cancer that finally disrupted their relationship. Sam was diagnosed with lymphoma in early 2017 and scheduled an appointment for pre-chemotherapy. The woman she had nannied for went to that first appointment to offer support, and it was there Sam told the nurse she was sexually active. Then Sam disclosed to her friend whom she was sexually active with.
“I told her it’s Dad (meaning Lieflander). She freaked,” Sam said.
Sam had been sheltered from the world and naive about sex when she started her relationship with Lieflander. Her friend and her friend’s husband had to sit Sam down and explain to her how wrong Lieflander’s actions were.
“Deep down I knew she was right. It broke me,” Sam said. “People would ask how’s the cancer going. I lost all my hair, but nothing could compare to what I was feeling inside. How’s cancer? Oh right, cancer.”
Once she got her bearings, Sam started telling people about the abuse and rape. This was in May and June of 2017. She wanted to make sure the college knew and could protect any other possible victims. She also started contacting the many parishes where Lieflander still operated Sparrows choirs, to make sure they knew. Sam was aided by a friend, who was able to corroborate that the disclosures were made.
One of Lieflanfder’s attorney’s, Tamara Bubis, an associate with criminal defense law firm Engel & Associates, declined to comment on the case when contacted.
Our Lady Seat of Wisdom responded to Sam’s disclosure by not renewing Lieflander’s contract, she said. The school, in a statement made just days ago, four years after the events, now claims it fired him. The school never followed up with its own investigation or review of Lieflander’s conduct on campus. It did not inform parents or students about the alleged abuse, and it did not contact law enforcement. Lieflander’s Sparrows choirs began shutting down because of Sam’s disclosures, and he left the country in the summer of 2017, and returned to Germany.
One of the people Sam told about the abuse was Fr. Marco Testa, then the pastor at Immaculate Conception Parish in Port Perry. Testa was reportedly supportive and sympathetic when Sam disclosed the alleged abuse, but she later found out that Testa brought Lieflander back for concerts at Immaculate Conception in January of 2018, after he heard allegations that he had groomed and raped her.
Testa is no longer serving at Immaculate Conception. Neil MacCarthy, public relations and communications director for the Archdiocese of Toronto, refused to divulge where Testa is currently residing. MacCarthy claims Testa retired at the end of 2020. MacCarthy declined to comment on the 2018 concert with Lieflander. Testa is reportedly aware we have requested to speak to him, but he has so far not responded.
Sam went to police a few weeks after the January of 2018 concert. Charges were not brought forward until January 2019 when Ottawa police obtained warrants for Lieflander’s arrest.
Lieflander, who has yet to face charges in court, currently posts videos to Youtube about his scooter riding adventures under the handle The Vespa Idiot.
He started a trip from Germany to Africa on his scooter last week, documenting his international journey to Casablanca online. This week he was in the South of France, according to his Youtube videos.
Christine Schintgen, interim president for Our Lady Seat of Wisdom and one of the school’s founders, declined to be interviewed for this story. Schintgen did agree to answer questions submitted via email. Her answers sought to distance the school from Lieflander.
“This was allegedly perpetrated on an alumna, but only after her time as a student at SWC was over. None of the alleged abuse is alleged to have happened while she was a student here. The alleged abuse was brought to our attention after the victim had ceased to be a student at OLSW. The victim did not bring forward any complaints or concerns to us during her time as a student, nor did anyone else,” Schintgen wrote.
Schintgen stated that the school never made any kind of statement about the allegations until the criminal charges were brought, two years after the school was made aware of the alleged abuse.
“We are deeply saddened by this case and the damage it has done to the victim. However, there has been no claim that the abuse happened on campus, and no reason to believe that the College was negligent,” Schintgen wrote.
Schintgen refused to address the alleged grooming that took place on campus when Sam was a student, and she deflected when asked why the school continued to employ Lieflander after the 2011 controversy over his touching students.
“In 2011 Uwe Lieflander resigned from his position with the Ottawa Catholic School Board rather than agree to abide by its policy prohibiting any physical contact between teachers and students. He argued that for certain subjects some contact was necessary, for example to correct posture while singing,” Schintgen wrote. “There was no suggestion that there had been a sexual element in the touch he employed or that he was guilty of sexual misconduct. After this controversy he continued to be employed by a number of schools and churches in the Toronto and Ottawa regions.”
Amanda Grady-Sexton, a domestic and sexual abuse survivors advocate in the United States, said an institution like a college should take clear steps when it learns about abuse.
“Best practice would be to report the abuse, notify and warn the college community, put the professor on leave pending an investigation conducted by an independent and external investigator, and to connect the survivor with on and off campus support and resources,” Grady-Sexton said. “It is also important to remind the community of the support in place for staff, students, and alumni. Notice to the community should be as detailed as possible, within HR guidelines, with updates as things change with the status of the case.”
Our Lady Seat of Wisdom, according to Schintgen’s answers, did none of that. However, in a statement released on June 29, the college now claims, four years later, that it acted swiftly when it learned of Lieflander’s alleged abuse.
“When we learned of this case involving a former student, we acted swiftly, leading to the end of his employment with us,” the new statement reads.
In the statement, the college for the first time publicly encourages any student who may have experienced abuse perpetrated by Lieflander to come forward to the authorities.
“We have strong policies and procedures in place to handle allegations of harassment or abuse, and we communicate them clearly to all incoming members of the College community. We welcome complaints of sexual abuse and harassment, and want to promote a spirit of openness and comfort around disclosure of such incidents so that they can be dealt with in a thorough, just, and proactive manner. We also welcome scrutiny that holds us to a high standard in this regard,” the statement reads.
A former college staffer who pushed for years for the college to deal with the Lieflander accusations said the statement coming years later was “heartbreaking and scandalous.”
“When I became aware of the situation with Lieflander, I asked three different presidents at SWC to make an internal statement for the sake of providing an environment where victims could come forward. The response varied from silence, to threats and hostility,” the former staffer said.
The statement comes weeks after Schintgen became aware of our forthcoming story, and four years after the alleged abuse was first disclosed. Sam was never contacted by the school ahead of the statement’s release, which came as a shock to her.
“I am furious and appalled with their statement that lacks truth and does not reflect the reality of the situation and undermines the credibility of SWC. Their motto, which is Veritas Vos Liberabit, ‘the truth will set you free’ rings hollow and empty across from the statement they produced and without external accountability their internal credibility is corrupt,” Sam said in a statement she provided to us Wednesday night. “Even one person and their story has more value than the whole institution and they have forgotten the human value. Even one victim is too many. Shame on them.”
Women are not safe at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom, Sam said.
The college did eventually give Sam $1,000 to help pay for therapy, though Schintgen denied to confirm that, saying the matter is confidential. Sam is currently cancer-free and back studying at a different college.
“I’m just kind of worn out. Life didn’t get easier,” she said.
EDIT July 1, 2:40 PM: A previous version of this article erroneously labelled the featured photo as the main academic building of Our Lady Seat of Wisdom college. It is actually St. Hedwig Church. We regret the error. The photo has been removed.
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