I discovered this slender volume in the early 1990s, while helping my friend and mentor Win Schell cull a room full of books. The title intrigued me, but I'd never heard the story. In the mid-1960s, Russell David Horsburgh (1918-1971), a United Church minister, fell into a scandal over his outreach to local youth. Allegations of providing alcohol and encouraging sexual activity led to a conviction for contributing to the delinquency of minors. He was acquitted on appeal. An era more trusting of clerics and less acquainted with church sex scandals expressed opinions over sipped tea and backyard fences and Horsburgh became national news. R.C. Smeaton's "first literary endeavour", a defence of his friend and fellow minister, attained instant Canadian bestseller status.
Youth Anonymous was apparently a thing at some mid-1960s churches. The drop-in program worked, in particular, with juvenile delinquents and other "young people who have been thinking and consequently behaving illegally and immorally" (21). At his new parish, Park Street United in Chatham, Ontario, Horsburgh started such a program. Scandalous stories spread of inappropriate behaviour by both attendees and their sponsoring clergyman.
Smeaton acknowledges that YA included youth who participated in "wild parties" and girls "who didn't seem to care who knew whether they were virgin or not" (63) (Smeaton actually calls these girls--and entitles one chapter-- "The 'Non-Virgin Clique'"). He insists, however that these antics occurred behind Horsburgh's back. We should hardly be surprised, he argues, when a program aimed at kids in trouble attracts troubled kids.
Smeaton's voice combines small town preacher and gossip. He spends pages smearing the unnamed teen witnesses: bad family influences, alcoholic parents, and even having a career working mother raise suspicion. He describes one as "a 'gear-box' or an individual with bi-sexual tendencies"(54), and the key female witness as "notably prolific in her favours to boys" (55). He also cites an adult "old guard" at the church whom he believes targeted Horsburgh. Apart from his troubled youth ministry, the new minister brought in guest speakers from other faiths and reached out to the African-Canadian community. Smeaton's basic thesis is that a traditionalist and prejudiced segment of the congregation disliked Horsburgh, took advantage of scandalous rumours, and found some unreliable teens willing to testify against the minister.
Horsburgh continued his outreach after his acquittal. A 1968 photo shows him in Yorkville, Toronto's late-60s hippie haven, talking to some young people. In 1969, he wrote From Pulpit to Prison: A Clergyman's Fight for Justice, and in 1976, Betty Jane Wylie wrote a play, The Horsburgh Scandal which was performed by Toronto's Theatre Passe Muraille. For the most part, however, Horsburgh faded from history. I do not know what really happened at Park Street United Church in the mid-1960s, but The Horsburgh Affair, at once pious, prurient, and pedestrian, provides an intriguing peek into another place and time, provided by an openly biassed and most curious guide.