OTTAWA — The federal prison service will review its decision to move notorious killer Paul Bernardo to a medium-security facility, but its reason for the controversial transfer remained secret Monday.
Leaders from across the political spectrum expressed shock and outrage at the Correctional Service of Canada's decision to move the murderer and serial rapist from Millhaven Institution, a maximum-security penitentiary near Kingston, Ont.
In a statement, the federal correctional service said it would review Bernardo's transfer to make sure it was appropriate, based on evidence, "and more importantly, adequately considered victims."
It called Bernardo's crimes "horrific," and said while it regrets any pain moving him has caused, "we are restricted by law in what we can divulge about an offender's case."
Earlier Monday, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said he had raised concerns about Bernardo's transfer directly to Anne Kelly, the federal corrections commissioner.
Mendicino said his office does not have the power to review the decision on its own, given the federal corrections service operates as an independent institution.
"I told her that as a former federal prosecutor and as a Canadian, that I was profoundly concerned and … shocked by this decision," Mendicino said to reporters.
"She assured me that she understood. She also assured me that she was going to be reviewing the matter."
Bernardo is serving a life sentence for the kidnapping, torture and murders of 15-year-old Kristen French in 1991 and 14-year-old Leslie Mahaffy in 1992.
Tim Danson, a lawyer representing their families, said he was notified last week that Bernardo had been transferred, but the federal correctional service refused to provide a reason for the move, or details of the killer's custody conditions, citing his rights under the federal Privacy Act.
The legislation governs federal institutions and stipulates there are some cases where an individual's personal information could be disclosed, including if the head of the institution involved determines the public interest "outweighs any invasion of privacy" or how the "disclosure would clearly benefit the individual whom the information relates."
The correctional service has not yet responded to a request for comment about whether that could apply to this situation.
Mendicino said Monday he believes Canadians deserve a justification for Bernardo's relocation. "That is absolutely an important question that needs to be answered."
In its statement, the correctional service said security classifications are based on risk to public safety, an offender's institutional adjustment and other case-specific information, including psychological risk assessments.
It went on to note that Bernardo, who has been designated a dangerous offender, is serving an "indeterminate sentence" with no end date.
Bernardo was also convicted of manslaughter in the December 1990 death of 15-year-old Tammy Homolka, who died after being drugged and sexually assaulted by Bernardo and her older sister, Karla Homolka, who at the time married to Bernardo.
Bernardo, who was referred to as the "Scarborough Rapist," ultimately admitted to sexually assaulting 14 other women.
Karla Homolka, who was also involved in the crimes committed against French and Mahaffy, pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was released in 2005 after serving a 12-year sentence.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Monday he understood how "shocked and appalled" Canadians were at the decision to move Bernardo and he suggested concerns about the transparency of the decision would be part of Mendicino's conversations with the commissioner.
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has called on his government to use whatever tools it can to reverse the transfer, while Ontario Premier Doug Ford released a statement saying Bernardo "should rot in a maximum-security prison for the rest of his miserable existence."
At a press conference on Monday, Poilievre said it was "outrageous" that the prison system had moved the killer to a medium-security facility.
"He should be in a maximum-security institution," he said. "The government should review any powers it has to reverse this ridiculous decision. Mr. Bernardo is a monster and he belongs in maximum security."
Danson told The Canadian Press on Sunday he found it unacceptable that the correctional service was withholding information from his clients and the broader public about Bernardo's transfer, saying the victims' families want to see him returned to maximum security.
"This is one of Canada's most notorious, sadistic, psychopathic killers," he said.
"We need the public in masses, in millions, to be writing to the minister, to the commissioner of corrections, and to the members of Parliament, to express their outrage over this — that secrecy will not work. We want transparency."
Danson said the French and Mahaffy families were shocked to hear of Bernardo's transfer, with the move bringing up decades of anguish and grief.
"Then for me to have to tell them as their lawyer and their friend, 'I'm afraid I have no answers for you because of Bernardo's privacy rights,'" he said.
"Of course their response is the one that you would expect: What about the rights of Kristen? What about the rights of Leslie? What about their rights?"
"These are questions I can't answer other than just to agree with them and share in their despair."
Bernardo's dangerous offender status makes the move all the more puzzling, Danson added as he questioned why Bernardo should reap any benefits of being in a medium-security facility with more lenient conditions.
"We need an open and transparent discussion and debate. These are major, major public institutions paid for by the taxpayers of Canada."
He suggested the correctional service's handling of the matter risks leading the public to feel suspicious of the entire system.
"They want to do everything behind closed doors and secretly."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on June 5, 2023.
Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: CORRECTS typo in second sentence