The deputy minister responsible for overseeing the province's parole and probation system expressed "deep regret" Wednesday for any abuse its clients might have experienced at the hands of two former Cornwall probation officers.
Deborah Newman told the Cornwall Public Inquiry that the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services has become more responsive to allegations of sexual abuse in the years since accusations surfaced against Nelson Barque and Ken Seguin.
"The ministry deeply regrets any harm that our clients may have suffered," Newman told lead commission counsel Peter Engelmann.
"We're not the same institution we were when those events occurred. But we certainly acknowledge that further improvements can be made." Barque and Seguin were both alleged to have abused former probationers at the Cornwall office.
Barque was convicted of abusing Albert Roy in 1995 and spent four months behind bars. He committed suicide in 1998.
Seguin was also accused of sexually abusing probationers - including Roy - and committed suicide in 1995. He was never charged.
For the first part of Wednesday morning, Newman took Engelmann through a laundry list of organizational changes that had been made since the allegations against Barque and Seguin came to light.
The ministry, she testified, had implemented a number of "safeguards" since the mid-1990s that were designed to protect probationers.
One of those initiatives, Newman said, was training that began in 1999 to help Cornwall probation officers deal with disclosures of sexual abuse from young men.
The province has also enhanced protection for whistleblowers in the public service, and in 2003 created a new ministry - the Ministry of Children and Youth Services - to help provide intervention and counselling, she said.
Newman testified that those and other programs reflected an"ideological and philosophical" shift over the past two decades in how the government has dealt with abuse allegations.
"There are much stronger safeguards and a reduced likelihood that that kind of abuse would be perpetuated today," said Newman.
"I think we've come a long way in terms of becoming a different institution than we were 10 or 20 years ago."
Newman's expression of regret was the second example of a Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services representative apologizing to an abuse victim at the inquiry.
Joseph Neuberger, a ministry attorney, apologized directly to Roy in November 2006 after Roy spent four days on the witness stand detailing a history of sexual abuse dating to the 1970s.
Dallas Lee, a lawyer for The Victims Group, predicted some of his clients might feel the same way Roy did when he received his apology: happy the ministry had acknowledged their suffering, but also bitter that acknowledgment didn't come sooner.
"The emotions are going to run the gamut," said Lee. "It (the apology) will be better than nothing."
Lee - who repeatedly questioned Newman yesterday about her ministry's willingness to be open with the public - said he couldn't be sure if her apology was proof of the ministry's supposed ideological shift.
"I think it's hard to draw any conclusions from that," he said. "Let's keep in mind we're at a public inquiry."
Newman also made five recommendations to Comm. Normand Glaude on how to prevent future cases of abuse and encourage victims to come forward.
One of her recommendations was that the ministry undertake in-depth reviews of the cases of any probation officer who quits or dies under "suspicious circumstances."