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Paula Simons: David Belke’s child pornography conviction a tale of tragedy

Should dark sexual fantasies be a crime? Do we want to punish people for their private thoughts?

David Belke was never known for tragedy.

For decades, the playwright and director has entertained audiences with his bright and charming comedies. Joyous musicals. Literary send-ups. Romantic romps. They were lighter-than-air confections that rarely pushed audiences out of their comfort zones.

Fringe fans lined up for Belke’s sunny, witty plays. Theatre groups across North America performed them.

But Belke had a dark side, one that we never saw on stage, one he kept carefully hidden from adoring audiences.

Belke was sentenced to six months in jail this past Friday after pleading guilty to possession of child pornography. His name has been added to the national list of registered sex offenders.

His career as a family-friendly playwright seems over. So too does his career as a substitute teacher with Edmonton Public Schools.

In our society, there’s hardly a more heinous sin than pedophilia. Every week, we seem to read another story about child sex abuse, whether the alleged perpetrator is a priest, a coach or a Republican politician.

Small wonder we react with visceral horror to the news that an award-winning artist and beloved teacher has been convicted of possessing child porn. We feel bamboozled. Duped.

The cast of one of David Belke’s most popular musical comedies, The Crimson Yak, which was remounted at the 2010 Fringe Festival. Belke’s own tragedy was off stage. J. PROCKTOR / JPROCKTOR.COM

For his students, and for the young performers and writers he’d mentored, it’s a terrible betrayal.

Yet something about Belke’s conviction fills me with disquiet.

None of the images found on his computer showed children being sexually abused or exploited.

Most weren’t sexually explicit at all.

Police found 1,559 problematic images on Belke’s laptop.

Of those, 827 were flagged as potentially illegal, mostly images of naked girls who appeared to be under 18. Some were apparently taken from “naturalist” or “nudist” websites.

Another 732 pictures were deemed worthy of investigation, including images of girls who weren’t unclothed.

But in the end, the police and Crown determined only a dozen of the images were actually pornographic. Of those, none depicted explicit sexual activity, although a number were memes that had captions describing explicit sexual activity. And there’s no suggestion that any of the images were of Belke’s own students.

Belke also had six short stories on his computer which described adults having sex with girls between the ages of 12 and 16. (Though Belke is a writer, the Crown did not allege that he wrote the stories.)

There is no evidence Belke distributed any of the images or writings.

We have every moral reason to be appalled that Belke had these stories on his computer. It’s certainly not material you’d want your child’s teacher to be reading after hours.

David Belke in a 2013 file photo outside the old Varscona Theatre.

But should fantasies be a crime? Do we want to punish people for their private thoughts?

A story, no matter how awful, doesn’t hurt a living child. You could argue such stories are moral and spiritual contagions, that they normalize pedophilia and might even inspire a real-life sexual assault. But does it make sense to criminalize a fictional depiction of an illegal act, however repellent that act may be?

Even the photographic evidence gives me pause.

Belke insisted he never used any of the pictures for sexual gratification or self-pleasure. He only collected the images, he claimed, because he’d never had any kind of sexual relationship himself and was “attracted to the innocence of the young people.”

That’s hard to believe. He’d amassed 1,559 pictures, after all. That’s an awful lot of “innocence.”

Yet shouldn’t we differentiate between someone who likes to look at pictures of naked girls from a nudist site and someone who buys pornography that exploits, abuses and tortures children? There is truly terrible child pornography in this world, pornography that really hurts children and those involved in its production, as buyers or sellers, belong in the seventh circle of hell. But despite Belke’s disturbing obsession, the vast majority of the pictures in his collection weren’t pornographic under Canadian law.

Canadian courts, though, have little latitude. Possession of child pornography comes with a mandatory minimum sentence of six months. The judge has no discretion.

In 2002, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Canada’s child pornography laws, ruling even “imaginary” depictions of children in sexualized situations illegal. The court created a narrow exemption, though, for people to write down private fantasies for their own personal private pleasure.

If Belke had written the stories, if he had taken his case to trial, he might have been able to claim such an exemption, for the stories at least. But I suspect he pleaded guilty to end the public humiliation, to bring down the curtain as quickly as possible on this tragedy, leaving us to wonder how a man so funny, charming and successful in his art could have led a private life of such loneliness, darkness and despair.