Canadian college, church, and community ignored predatory choirmaster’s red flags

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.

Lieflander in a 2021 Vespa Idiot video

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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.

Our Lady Seat of Wisdom in 2016

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.

Lieflander started working at the private college in 2007 and became renowned as a musician and voice teacher. He had come up through the Regensburger Domspatzen (“cathedral sparrows”) boys choir in Germany, where, according to a report, over 500 boys had been sexually abused. 

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.

Lieflander in a 2021 Vespa Idiot video

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.

Eventually, in 2011, the Ottawa Catholic School Board expressed concerns about his habit of touching children during Sparrow choir rehearsals. Rather than stop touching the children, he resigned. His resignation caused a media stir, and parents at one school protested the school board’s actions, saying they did not object to the touching. Lieflander continued leading private Sparrows choirs, and Our Lady Seat of Wisdom continued to employ him.

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.” 

Lieflander in 2021

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. 

Lieflander rehearsing for the Sparrows concert at Immaculate Conception in 2018

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. 

Fr. Marco and Lieflander at Immaculate Conception in 2018

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.

Lieflander in a recent “Vespa Idiot” video

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.

 

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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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Comments are closed for this article. Anyone wishing to contact Damien or Simcha Fisher regarding this story may use the contact form on this page. 

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Image sources:
Concert rehearsal video
Lieflander and Fr. Marco
Vespa Idiot and Vespa Idiot

Child molesters groom the whole community (and they don’t need Troll dolls)

Here in the US, conspiracy theory-minded folks recently convinced themselves that a new doll was deliberately designed to groom kids for sexual abuse.

When you push a button on the doll’s bottom, it makes happy noises. One mother posted a video saying that she thought the noises were sexual, and her message quickly went viral.

The company said that any sexual connotations were unintentional, and they’re happy to replace the doll, and are “in the process of removing the item for purchase.”

Is it possible that someone in toy design deliberately made a toy for the purpose of teaching kids to associate their private parts with pleasure? Anything is possible (although most kids figure that out easily enough on their own).

There is certainly a lot of blurring of lines between sexiness and cuteness in toys, and it’s gross. It’s worth while, for any number of reasons, to limit your kids’ exposure to dolls and toys and books and shows that constantly show them sexual things.

But this woman’s concern was based on a misunderstanding of what active, targeted grooming often looks like. The whole point of grooming is that it doesn’t start with private parts and sexy noises.

Grooming of children and other victims starts with things that are objectively innocuous and non-sexual: Offering rides, being friendly and helpful, giving little gifts, accustoming them to non-sexual physical touch. So when we get the impression that grooming of children looks like sex plus children, we’re setting ourselves up to miss actual red flags, and that means missing actual sexual abusers.

And there’s another important idea: When someone wants to sexually abuse a child, he doesn’t just groom the child. He very often grooms everyone around the child.

He grooms character witnesses. He grooms an entire community, so that nobody thinks twice about letting him spend time alone with the child, and so that, if the child does speak up and say something is weird, no one will believe the child or the whistleblower, because everyone knows and loves Awesome Coach Steve or Holy Fr. George or Helpful Uncle Andy or Venerable Grandpa Henry, and it would never cross their mind that the guy everyone likes would do such a thing.

Having everyone on your side is vital, and abusers know this. They work to make everyone around the child will be unwittingly complicit in the child’s abuse.

This reality hit home when I was undergoing training to teach catechism class for my diocese… Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

 

Image: minanfotos via Pixabay

The Seed Who Was Afraid To Be Planted: A terrifying and potentially dangerous book for kids

A new children’s book, The Seed Who Was Afraid To Be Planted (Sophia Institute Press, 2019), is getting rave reviews from moms, Catholic media, and conservative celebrities.

On the surface, it’s a simple, inspiring story about courage and change; but for many kids — and for many adults who have suffered abuse — the pictures, text, and message will be terrifying and even dangerous. At best, this children’s book delegitimizes normal emotions. At worst, it could facilitate abuse.

The rhymed verses by Anthony DeStefano, lavishly illustrated by Erwin Madrid, tell the story of a little seed who’s plucked from his familiar drawer

and planted in the earth. He’s frightened and confused, but soon realizes that change means growth, and as he’s transformed into a beautiful, fruitful tree, he becomes thankful to the farmer who planted him, is grateful and happy, and forgets his fears forever.

While religion isn’t explicitly mentioned until after the page that says “the end,” the influence of scripture is obvious (the seed packets are labelled things like “mustard,” “sycamore,” “olive,” “grape,” and “fig,” and it makes references to “mansions” and “vineyards”). The seed is everyman (or everychild), and the farmer is God the Father, and/or authority figures like parents and teachers.  

It sounds helpful and wholesome, but let’s take a closer look.

Margaret Realy, author, artist, and speaker (The Catholic Gardener) reviewed the book, anticipating a pleasant read, but was alarmed and disturbed. She wrote a review on Amazon that pinpoints the specifics. Realy said:

This story places childhood abuse and neglect in the center of its theme. A small defenseless being is repeatedly traumatized by seeing loved ones ‘disappeared’ “…and no one would see that seed anymore.” Then the following stanzas speak of anticipatory trauma that he too will be taken away.

The fearful day comes, he can’t escape, and the man’s hand clasped around him. No matter how the seed cried and yelled, he was taken from a secure and loving environment to one of “horror”, “pain”, and “agony.”

The man that took him away was silent and unresponsive to the pleading seed, buried him alive, and left him abandoned.

That’s a lot for a young child to process, and nearly impossible for one—of any age—that is abused.

The pictures are dramatic and gripping, and the dark subject matter contrasts weirdly with the cartoonish faces and font:

Here is the seed, weeping after being abruptly buried alive:

The seed does, of course, come out well in the end, and it becomes a home for birds and animals; children play around it, and it bears much (confusingly diverse) fruit while overlooking a prosperous paradisal landscape with “millions of mansions.”

But this happy ending doesn’t do the job it imagines it does. Realy points out that, while the story attempts to show that the seed’s fears were unfounded and it would be better if he had trusted the farmer, it doesn’t show any of that in progress. Realy said:

Unfortunately I find the story’s transitioning through fear of the unknown into transformation by Grace, weak. The ‘seed’ began to change without any indication of the Creator’s hand, and his terrified soul was not comforted or encouraged by human or Holy.

Instead, it simply shows him transforming “all at once, in the blink of an eye”

This might have been a good place to point out that a seed grows when it’s nourished by a farmer, and to illustrate what appropriate care and concern  actually look like. The Old and New Testament are absolutely loaded with references to God’s tenderness, kindness, mercy, love, care, pity, and even affection; but this book includes none of that, and instead skips seamlessly from terror and abandonment to prosperous new life.

It explicitly portrays God (or his nearest representative in a child’s life) as huge, terrifying, silent, and insensible and unresponsive to terror and agony — and also inexplicably worthy of unquestioning trust.

Realy points out: 

Research indicates that up to 25% of children in the United States are abused, and of that 80% of those children are five and under (Childhelp: Child Abuse Statistics Facts. Accessed December 2019). This is based on only reported cases.

That’s a lot of kids.

Imagine a child who has been taken from a place of comfort, happiness, and companionship and is thrust into darkness and isolation by a looming, all-powerful figure who silently ignores their terror and buries them alive.

Now imagine what this book tells that child to think about himself, and what it tells him to think about God. Imagine how useful this book would be to someone who wants to continue to abuse, and who wants his victim to believe that what is happening to him is normal and healthy and will bear fruit. 

It is ghastly.

But what about kids who aren’t being abused? The statistics, while horrifying, do show that most children aren’t being abused. Can’t we have books designed for these typical children? 

It is true that some kids are inappropriately afraid of change and growth, and need to be reminded that the unknown isn’t always bad. Imagery is useful for kids (and for adults), and I can imagine an anxious child who’s afraid of going to second grade being comforted with a reminder: Remember the little seed? He was scared, too, but the new things turned out to be good and fun!

But even for these children who aren’t experiencing massive trauma or abuse, and who truly are being cared for by people who want good for them, the narrative minimizes and delegitimizes normal childhood emotions. It’s clear that the seed is wrong to be afraid, even though his situation is objectively terrifying. Teaching kids to ignore and minimize their powerful emotions does not facilitate growth or maturity; it encourages emotional maladaptations that bear bad fruit in adult life. Ask me how I know. 

The flaws in the book are especially egregious when they make the message explicitly spiritual. The final page says “From the Bible” and quotes four passages from scripture. Two are unobjectionable, but two are breathtakingly inappropriate for kids: One quotes John’s passage about a grain of wheat falling to the ground and dying; and one describes Jesus falling to the ground at Gethsemane and praying that the Father might take the cup away, but saying “Yet not as I will, but as you will.”

These are not verses for children! They are certainly not for children of an age to appreciate the colorful, cartoonish illustrations and simplistic rhyming stanzas in the book. These are verses for adults to grapple with, and goodness knows adults have a hard enough time accepting and living them. 

Including them in a book for young kids reminds me chillingly of the approach the notorious Ezzos, who, in Preparation for Parenting, urges parents to ignore the cries of their infants, saying, “Praise God that the Father did not intervene when his Son cried out on the cross.” I also recall (but can’t find) reading how the Ezzos or a similar couple tell parents to stick a draconian feeding schedule for very young babies, comparing a baby’s hungry cries to Jesus on the cross saying, “I thirst.”    

On a less urgent note, it’s also sloppy and careless with basic botany. Realy, an avid garner, points out its “backwards horticulture” which has the tree growing “nuts and fruits that hang down,” but then later “the tree sprouted flowers/and blossoms and blooms.” It also shows a single tree producing berries, fruits, nuts, and grapes, refers to how “woodpeckers pecked/at his bark full of sap.” Woodpeckers do not eat sap, and sap is not in the bark of a tree. Realy and I both also abhor the lazy half-rhymes that turn up, pairing “afraid” with “day” and “saw” and “shore.” 

But worse than these errors is the final page, which shows a beaming, full-grown tree, along with a textbook minimization of trauma:

“The tree understood
that he had been freed.
He barely remembered
when he was a seed.

He barely remembered
his life in the drawer.
his fears disappeared
and returned . . . nevermore.”

Again, if we’re talking about a kid who was nervous about moving to a new classroom, then yes, the fears might turn out to be easily forgotten. But that’s not what the book describes. When the seed is being carried away from its familiar home, it says, “I’m in so much pain and such agony!” and “He felt so abandoned, forsaken, alone” as he’s buried alive by a giant, faceless man who offers no explanation, comfort, or even warning. In short, it describes true trauma, and trauma doesn’t just “disappear and return nevermore.” It’s cruel to teach kids or even adults to expect the effects of trauma to vanish without a trace.

As Realy said: “PTSD never goes away, even with God. We learn to carry the cross well.” 

Let’s be clear: Children don’t need everything to be fluffy and cheery and bright. Some kids, even very young kids, relish dark and gruesome stories, and I’m not arguing for shielding children from anything that might possibly trouble or challenge their imaginations. We recently read Robert Nye’s Beowulf, for instance. We read mythology; we read scripture.

But when we set out to explicitly teach a lesson — especially a lesson that purports to speak on behalf of God! — it’s vital to get the context exactly right. This book is so very sloppy and careless with children’s tender hearts, that even if there isn’t some dark intention behind it, it’s very easy to imagine a predatory abuser using it as a tool.

 A Catholic publisher like Sophia Institute Press ought to know better.