Bernardo, Correctional Service Canada: Who’s Svengali now? | John L. Hill

By John L. Hill

Law360 Canada (October 18, 2023, 9:10 AM EDT) --
John L. Hill
John L. Hill
In his 1894 novel Trilby, George du Maurier introduced us to a character named Svengali. Svengali exploits a young Irish woman and allows her, through hypnosis, to become a great singer and always under his control. We now refer to the Svengali effect as a mesmeric control of another for evil purposes, making the person so controlled the dupe of a criminal mastermind.

When the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) reviewed Paul Bernardo’s transfer from maximum-security Millhaven Penitentiary to medium-security La Macaza Institution, Appendix B in that review outlined Bernardo’s institutional chronology. Several of the redacted incidents referred to private family visits.

Even though names were erased from the CSC review, it becomes evident that the visitor was likely the 30-year-old “attractive, university-educated London woman” with an ankle tattoo proclaiming she is “Paul’s girl” described in a 2014 Toronto Sun report. Besides being sensationalistic and voyeuristic, such reports encourage the public to believe that Bernardo can still lure unsuspecting innocents into his evil web. He is a modern-day Svengali, the newspaper suggests.

Such reports allow the public to conclude that rehabilitation is impossible despite incarceration in maximum security. “Just look what he’s doing to that young woman,” is the expected response.

People who have been acquainted with dealing with high-profile criminals will understand there’s another side to the story. It comes from an appreciation of a psychological/psychiatric phenomenon called hybristophilia. The condition is not a mental disorder. Instead, it is a paraphilia – a deviation from conventional sexual attraction. Hybristophiliacs are attracted sexually to those who commit crimes.

In my own practice of prison law, I was amazed that women would send nude photos of themselves to child killer Clifford Olson. I could not appreciate that wife killer Helmut Buxbaum could remarry and have conjugal visits with a woman he did not know before his imprisonment. I failed to comprehend what attracted a young gay man to partner with Terry Fitzsimmons and join him in committing murders and bank robberies. Was hybristophilia at work? One can only speculate since none of these criminals’ partners were, to my knowledge, ever psychologically assessed.

These situations differ from when a prisoner actively attempts to court potential partners from behind bars. That was the modus operandi of Selva Subbiah, Canada’s most notorious rapist. He would phone unsuspecting women from prison for his own sexual gratification.

Hybristophilia has not received the study that would help us better understand what is happening. Without knowledge of the psychology at work, we conclude that the person who is the beneficiary of the amorous attention is a modern-day Svengali and seems more evil in our eyes. It is another case of blaming the victim.

Fortunately, the CSC review did not consider media accounts and erroneous public perceptions in its conclusion that the Bernardo transfer was proper and in accordance with established practices relating to inmate transfers.

In another appendix to the report, CSC noted that using its statistically derived tool for predicting recidivism, Bernardo had a score of +14, which translates that four out of five offenders will not commit an indictable offence after release.

The CSC went far beyond this statistical tool and looked at Bernardo’s situation comprehensively. The expert advice and the background material placed Bernardo in a position where it was justifiable that he be transferred to medium security. This is not to argue he should be released in the near future. But let us at least acknowledge that the Correctional Service has a duty to treat him fairly and humanely while he is in prison and not be guided by public perceptions of how his incarceration should be imposed.

Despite the effect that sensational reporting causes public frustration and a belief that our criminal and correctional institutions are not working, it is sometimes worthwhile to hold our tempers and not jump to the conclusion that criminals are unredeemable and the only way to deal with them is by locking them away in the deepest and darkest hole imaginable. In short, don’t believe everything we are told. After all, Svengali was just a fictional character.

John L. Hill practised and taught prison law until his retirement. He holds a J.D. from Queen’s and LL.M. in constitutional law from Osgoode Hall. He is also the author of Pine Box Parole: Terry Fitzsimmons and the Quest to End Solitary Confinement (Durvile & UpRoute Books). Contact him at

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the author’s firm, its clients, Law360 Canada, LexisNexis Canada, or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.   

Interested in writing for us? To learn more about how you can add your voice to Law360 Canada, contact Analysis Editor Peter Carter at or call 647-776-6740.