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Lawyer for Bernardo victims says families told of transfer the day it happened

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Paul Bernardo leaves the detention centre in Scarborough on his way to a court appearance in St. Catharines, Ont., Thursday, Sept. 16, 1993. The Correctional Service of Canada is defending its decision to uphold Paul Bernardo's privacy rights, as the federal public safety minister says Canadians deserve to know why he was moved to a medium-security prison. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

OTTAWA — The families of convicted killer and rapist Paul Bernardo's victims didn't learn that he was being transferred to a different prison until the day it happened, the correctional service confirmed Friday.

Tim Danson, who represents the families of two of Bernardo's victims, said in an open letter Friday that the family of Kristen French was notified of the convicted killer and serial rapist's transfer out of his maximum-security institution the morning of May 29.

"By early to mid-afternoon, they were told that the transfer had been completed," he wrote in a letter addressed to Anne Kelly, the commissioner of Correctional Service Canada. 

Bernardo is serving a life sentence for the murders, kidnapping and torture of 15-year-old French and 14-year-old Leslie Mahaffy in the early 1990s. He has admitted to sexually assaulting 14 other women and was convicted of manslaughter in the death of Tammy Homolka, who died after being drugged and sexually assaulted.  

Tammy's sister Karla Homolka, who was married to Bernardo at the time, was released in 2005 after completing a 12-year sentence for her role in the crimes committed against French and Mahaffy.

Danson's letter came as federal officials faced continued fallout over the decision to move Bernardo to a medium-security prison, across police associations, the Ontario legislature and Parliament Hill.

This week, Ontario Premier Doug Ford called on Kelly to resign — or be fired — over the decision. 

Danson said in the letter that the victims' families want Bernardo's transfer reversed. He also raised concerns about how the federal correctional service notified them of the controversial move. 

The correctional service has said in statements that it informed victims of what was going on before his transfer, as well as after it happened.

In his letter, Danson wrote that the French family appeared to find out on the day it happened.

And the Mahaffy family were "left with the distinct impression that the transfer had already taken place, or at best was imminent," the letter said. Danson did not include specific details around when they were notified. 

"Had anyone considered that this transfer was done just over two weeks before the anniversary date of Leslie Mahaffy's abduction and murder?" he wrote.

"Does anyone at (the Correctional Service of Canada) appreciate the devastating grief experienced by the Mahaffy family at this time of year?"

Danson himself received two voice mails on May 29, his letter said, and the second notified him that the federal correctional service "had some information for me."

"The decision to delay informing myself as counsel and the families until the day of the transfer and while the transfer was in progress is, with respect, troubling." 

This was not "regular administrative news," the letter said. "A development of such pivotal importance came as a shock to the families."

Late Friday, Kevin Antonucci, a spokesman for the correctional service, confirmed victims' families were notified of his transfer the day it happened. 

"One of the considerations for not providing sooner notifications was the safety and security of the staff who had to conduct the transfer ... given it was publicly known that the offender was located at Millhaven Institution."

He added the commissioner has since spoken with one of the victim's families to answer their questions.

Earlier in the day, the correctional service defended its decision to uphold Bernardo's privacy rights, despite the federal public safety minister saying that Canadians are owed an explanation for why he was moved. 

Antonucci said Bernardo was transferred as a result of a review into his security classification, which is required every two years. 

He underlined that Bernardo poses no risk to public safety and the Quebec prison he now resides in has the same security perimeter as a maximum-security institution. The prison specializes in the treatment of violent sex offenders.

Speaking generally, Antonucci said the criteria for transfers and security classifications are based on factors like a prisoner's escape risk, as stipulated under the law governing corrections. 

The service has also acknowledged that while Canadians want answers about why Bernardo was moved, it is "restricted by the law" in what it can say. 

What prison authorities are allowed to disclose, including to victims, is outlined in corrections law and in the federal Privacy Act.

Antonucci said Friday that under privacy law, the correctional service cannot disclose an inmate's personal information without their consent, "except in specific circumstances."

He said considerations include the sensitivity of the information as well as the likelihood and level of "injury relative to the benefits of the disclosure to the public." 

In his letter, Danson said the public has a right to know and maintains he was no provided reasons for Bernardo's transfer due to privacy law.

"To (effect) such a transfer without any explanation, under the cloak of protecting privacy rights of the person who sadistically and brutally sexually tortured their daughters before murdering them is beyond comprehension," he said. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 9, 2023.

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press