CORNWALL, Ont. - This eastern Ontario community can become a "beacon of hope" for survivors of childhood sexual abuse, a judge said Tuesday at the end of a $53-million inquiry fuelled by sensational rumours of a pedophile ring.

The tale swirled for years in this small city and cries for an investigation were the driving force behind the inquiry's creation. But four years after it began the Cornwall inquiry report left unanswered long simmering questions about whether a ring actually existed.

Still, Commissioner G. Normand Glaude, a northern Ontario judge, said with the implementation of his recommendations, Cornwall can become a model for responding to abuse allegations and preventing such trauma in the first place.

"Cornwall is not a community eclipsed by the dark cloud of scandal," he said in delivering his final report.

"With implementation of needed changes at institutions and an integrated plan for healing and reconciliation, Cornwall will be a beacon of hope for other communities."

Though the Cornwall inquiry's official mandate was to examine institutional responses to decades of historical claims of sexual abuse dating back to the 1960s, Glaude had been urged to debunk the pedophile ring rumour once and for all. He flatly refused.

"Throughout this inquiry I have heard evidence that suggested that there were cases of joint abuse, passing of alleged victims, and possibly passive knowledge of abuse," Glaude wrote in his more than 1600-page report.

"I want to be very clear that I am not going to make a pronouncement on whether a ring existed or not."

The very real abuse that many people suffered may have been the result of an organized group or it could have been an "unfortunate coincidence," which could have arisen from the fact that many alleged abusers were part of a particular institution, such as the local diocese or justice system, Glaude wrote.

Cornwall Mayor Bob Kilger called it "regrettable" the commissioner didn't debunk the ring allegation, but said it won't leave an indelible stain on the city because they will now be seen as "trailblazers."

"I think our image is fine," he said. "If people think for a minute that what happened in Cornwall - I'm sorry, sex abuse goes on in all communities."

The Ontario Provincial Police spent four years investigating allegations of sexual abuse, an investigation Glaude criticized in the report. Police laid 115 charges against 15 people under Project Truth, though only one was convicted.

The police declared there was no evidence of a ring, but that failed to quell the suspicion and fear in the community, Glaude said.

"I find that the OPP did not conduct a full-scale investigation into the linkages between victims and perpetrators," he wrote.

Glaude made the point, however, of noting "much of what I have heard about linkages remain allegations that have not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt."

The report found institutional response to reports of sexual abuse was, in large part, inadequate and failed to protect the vulnerable. Among the commissioner's recommendations was to expand training and mandatory education for professionals such as public servants, those in the justice system, teachers and others having contact with children or adults who may have been sexually abused.

While Glaude made no definitive statements about a ring, he declared there was not a conspiracy by several institutions to cover up the existence of any such operation, rather that agency bungling left that impression.

Perhaps the most sensational of all the stories hanging over Cornwall was that a clan of powerful men sexually abused boys at a cottage during strange rituals while clad in robes.

The source of the tale was Ron Leroux, who both police and Glaude found not to be credible and who later recanted his allegations at the inquiry. He was a "highly suggestible individual" who adopted ideas that one crusading police officer put to him as his own, Glaude wrote.

Leroux told his story to former Cornwall police officer Perry Dunlop, who was conducting an unsanctioned, off-hours investigation. Dunlop's probe began after he discovered an alleged abuse victim withdrew a complaint against a priest in 1993 after reaching a settlement with the Alexandria-Cornwall Roman Catholic Diocese.

Dunlop was right to disclose the settlement to the Children's Aid Society, said Glaude. However, Dunlop's distrust of public institutions, including police and prosecutors, eventually overwhelmed what was a genuine desire to help children, he wrote.

Further, the commissioner found it "troubling" that Dunlop could not accept, at some point, that Leroux was not the "definitive source" he had hoped for in his investigation.

Dunlop, who lives in British Columbia and could not immediately be reached for comment, spent seven months in jail for contempt when he refused to testify at the inquiry of his own making, saying he no longer had faith in the system.

Part of the inquiry's funding has been going toward counselling for victims of sexual abuse, support that is scheduled to end on Jan. 15.

Glaude said he hoped the Ontario government would reconsider that decision and called on it to fund counselling for up to five years.

The Ontario government offered an apology to victims and the people of Cornwall. Attorney General Chris Bentley said there was no question there would be more money to help victims, but did not specify an amount.

"This community needed to be heard. Those who were victimized needed to be heard," he said, defending the inquiry's work despite the $53-million price tag.

"I would ask people not to forget the importance of allowing victims to have their story, have their pain, truly heard."

Paul Scott, the head of a Cornwall community group, said implementing Glaude's recommendations will redeem his city.

"Where we failed is we haven't been able to deal with these kinds of problems appropriately," he said.

"That's where we get our bad name."

Sexual abuse victim Steve Parisien said survivors can now help others like him and the rest of the community turn a negative into something positive.

"This community has been victimized," he said. "It's been victimized in the same fashion that we were victimized."

Latest From ...