The shooting deaths of 33 people at the Virginia Tech campus in the United States this week is another reminder for Father Bob Bedard of a grisly attack at his own school 32 years ago in Ottawa, Canada. It was in the days when guns in schools just didn’t happen. Bedard, a Catholic priest, was teaching when a student arrived with a shot gun. Three people died that day. Father Bedard talked with MercatorNet about the killer, the tragedy, and how people cope when and after it happens.
MercatorNet: What happened at your school?
Bedard: In 1975 I was teaching the religion program and had a large class of 50 kids. I was in the classroom one day, when one of the boys of the class, Robert Poulin, who was 18, came in with a sawed-off shotgun that he had purchased and sprayed shots across the classroom, hitting about 10 students. Interestingly, it was a co-ed class but the only ones he hit were the boys. One of the boys was wounded seriously and, after about a month, he died.
MercatorNet: What do you know about the boy with the gun?
Bedard: The boy, Poulin, was a loner. He stayed by himself. We saw this as a forewarning sign of something. He was deeply, deeply into pornography. One of the police detectives afterward said it was the worst collection of pornography that he had ever seen. He lived in his parents’ basement and kept a padlock on his room. He got more and more into the occult. His diaries seemed to hint to that. He talked about the kingdom of death and how he looked forward to the kingdom of death. I don’t know if he had an agreement with the devil. He might have.
Robert was not an impressive looking guy. He was short and stumpy and he couldn’t get any of the girls interested in him but through his teens he decided he wanted to have some of the action. He wanted to have sex and he decided the only way he could have it was to rape a girl. There was a girl his own age who lived around the corner. He raped her and killed her. From there he came to school.
MercatorNet: He went to your classroom?
Bedard: He very quietly pushed the door open to the classroom. I was standing at the front talking to the class. I saw the door open and stopped talking. The students were waiting for me to speak. Gradually, I noticed a gun barrel and when I saw it was spitting fire I realised we were being attacked. I yelled at the kids, "get down, get down. It’s a gun." Everybody hit the floor and I think what happened was he was afraid that some of the guys were going to jump him because they were motioning to each other to come at him from different angles. He backed into the hall. One of the guys kicked the door closed with a loud slam. Out in the hallway he must have put the gun into his mouth and blew his brains out.
I didn’t know what was happening. I thought we were being attacked by a consortium. We were on the main floor and windows started to break so I thought there were other people coming in through the windows but the kids were going out the windows to safety. They were breaking the windows from the inside and jumping out. By this time the school was in an uproar. Sirens were coming from all directions -– police, medics, fire departments, reporters. It was a Canada-wide phenomenon.
MercatorNet: What happened next?
Bedard: The kids were taken to the gym by a couple of the teachers and I went over to talk to them individually. Some were crying. Others were trembling and they were obviously paralysed, most of them with fear.
MercatorNet: This was in 1975. Had you heard of cases of shooting sprees at school?
Bedard: I can’t say that I had heard of any but there had been a few. But it was not something I was aware of. The principal’s office said that we should brave it out so we all came back to school the next day, which I thought was a mistake. I wanted to get them away for a couple of days and talk the thing out. Not all of them were able to process the thing. Some of them had nightmares for months. A few of them even to this day have never really gotten over it.
MercatorNet: There were 50 students in the classroom. How many were not able to get over it?
Bedard: About half a dozen. Others still have the odd nightmare from time to time. About half a dozen are not as functional as they need to be as people.
MercatorNet: What prevents people from getting on with their life?
Bedard: It’s the haunting memory. It’s seared into their subconscious and it comes out of the subconscious from time to time. It’s a memory they can’t get rid of. We had a gathering for the students about seven or eight years and about half of them came.
MercatorNet: What were the most memorable comments expressed by your former students at that reunion?
Bedard: A lot of them wanted to ask the question that everybody asks. Where was God? That’s the question we need to have an answer to. Of course, He was there. I have to remind them right away where I’m coming from. I’m a priest. I’m a believer. I simply say: look, there is no point in trying to blame it on God and say, why didn’t He show up because we as a country, as a society, have written Him off. Individually we haven’t done that but as a country we’ve done that. The parliament, the courts give no support whatsoever to faith.
In addition to that we are a society that is fascinated by violence. We put up with it on television and movies and kids are brought up on it. Guns are a frequent instrument on television. We also tolerate the multi-billion dollar a year business of pornography that is based on the belief that sex is meant for entertainment. So, people’s heart, minds, and souls are corrupted. We’ve written God off the script, so these things are going to happen.
MercatorNet: What can be said to help people after a tragedy like Virginia Tech?
Bedard: The event is over and there is great wounding in people’s hearts and minds. Psychologists can help but God is the greatest healer of all. Pass everything over to Him and allow Him to take the time to work out the healing in your life. That wouldn’t be very popular but that’s where I stand.