The Double Life of Ben Levin: His depraved online world, and the sting that brought him down

The Double Life of Ben Levin: His depraved online world, and the sting that brought him down

Most people knew Ben Levin as a distinguished U of T professor and former deputy education minister, but behind closed doors he was indulging in twisted fantasies of child abuse and incest

Benjamin Levin dazzled everyone around him. He was the second of four brothers, born in 1952 to a warm, loving, staunch NDP family in West Kildonan, a Jewish suburb of Winnipeg. His father, David, was a dentist; his mother, Dorothy, a nurse. The Levin boys were all smart, but Benjy, as many people called him, was brilliant. In high school, he was editor of a city-wide student newspaper called Youth Beat, and he looked the part in thick black Buddy Holly glasses. He was also student council president, and he appeared on the TV quiz show Reach for the Top, where his team won the provincial championship. He was as charismatic as he was clever, fizzing with the kind of energy and good humour that draws people in.

At 19, Levin enrolled in honours history at the University of Manitoba, where he also sat on the school senate and managed the basketball team. In his first year of university, he used his bright likability to run for the Winnipeg school board. Instead of mailing out pamphlets advertising his campaign, he enlisted 90 other youths to go door-to-door throughout his ward, handing out leaflets and singing his praises. The tactic worked: he was elected as the board’s youngest-ever school trustee.

Levin’s ability to inspire people became his trademark. From his early start as a teenage politico, he positioned himself as someone who cared deeply about reworking Canada’s education system. He worried that race and poverty made for a grossly unfair system when it came to quality of education, and rallied for a more democratic model: the kind that would respect students, he once wrote, “who do not want to conform to the system’s expectations.” After earning his master’s in education from Harvard in 1975 and his PhD from OISE in 1982, Levin joined the civil service in Manitoba. He was quickly disenchanted with the bureaucratic busywork; he thirsted for reform. He fought for policies that would boost graduation rates, especially in disadvantaged neighbourhoods—and he had a way of galvanizing others who also saw themselves as instigators of change.

Everybody wanted to work with Ben Levin. He advised on progressive education systems all over the world. He wrote inspiring books outlining his theories. In 2005, he became a professor at OISE and held the Canada Research Chair in educational leadership and policy. Over the years, he served as deputy education minister, once in Manitoba and twice in Ontario under then–education minister Kathleen Wynne, a fellow OISE grad who found herself impressed by his dedication. In 2013, after she took over as premier, she hand-picked Levin to be on her transition team.

His home life was just as rich. In the late ’70s, Levin married Barbara Wiktorowicz, a fellow Winnipegger and community health worker. They had three daughters, Clare, Anna and Ruth. By all accounts, they radiated the cheerful domestic hum of a close and happy family, their days filled with homework, swimming lessons, family dinners, sleepovers and birthday parties. Levin taught his daughters how to ride their bicycles, played silly games, told stories and sang the kids to sleep at night. As they got older, he instilled confidence and helped them grow into self-assured women. They considered themselves lucky to have a dad like him.

He was the unifying force in his extended family, too. When his mother was too old to host holiday dinners, it was Ben who drew his brothers and their kids together. As his parents grew more elderly, he became their primary caretaker, looking after their finances and their medical needs. He and Barbara would often take in nieces and nephews when they came to town, sometimes for several months at a time.

It seemed like Levin had it all. By 2012, he was making close to 50 speeches a year all over the world, and he turned down as many invitations as he accepted. That fall, he released his eighth book, More High School Graduates, to glowing reviews—the industry magazine Education Canada called it “a convincing call to action.” At OISE, Levin advised doctoral students, making himself available to them at all times, and showing understanding and patience beyond the call. He was, as all his old friends wanted to tell me, both captivating and funny, a power-house academic who’d open a presentation with a joke from The Onion.

But underneath it all, Levin was breaking away from reality. He started spending hours online lurking in sex chat rooms. Eventually, he became an active participant, bonding with other users over increasingly disturbing desires. The man everybody loved to love had a terrible secret: a digital world filled with fantasies of rape, incest and child abuse. A place where, as Levin wrote in one of his chat room profiles, “nothing is taboo.”

The internet has transformed pedophilia from a private pursuit into an alarmingly social subculture. When pedophiles discover websites devoted to child pornography, they take solace in the idea that they’re part of a like-minded community; at the same time, they’re able to convince themselves that there are worse people out there. Online child exploitation started with bulletin board systems—rudimentary chat rooms that allowed pedophiles to upload and view images. Most of them were scanned from European magazines, where child pornography was legal in some countries until the early ’80s. Now the technology has advanced to the point where people store pornographic images and videos on their cell phones, tablets, laptops, flash drives, DVRs and even smart car systems. Kim Gross, a detective sergeant with the Toronto Police Service and the head of the child exploitation unit, told me that if she had the resources, her team could easily make arrests every day.

Bulletin boards have been replaced by a vast network of websites that cater to different users. There are thousands of private chat rooms to discuss fantasies and exchange images. Flickr knock-off sites allow people to upload photos to password-protected galleries. It’s easy to access these online hideaways: anyone can poke around chat rooms to find a mentor, someone who’s interested in the same things. The mentor might ask the newbie to post a child porn image as an open-sesame, then reveal the darknet passwords and security answers that will give them access to the underbelly.

The most popular chat sites are designed to mimic social networking platforms. They often take a hybrid approach: a member can write a profile, post content and have friends, like on Facebook; he can subscribe to certain accounts, like on YouTube; he can favourite a post, like on Twitter. Users can gain status and clout within the network depending on how active they are, the elaborateness of their messages and stories, the quality of their uploaded content, and whether they perform “extras,” like offering to procure children for other community members. The administrators reward those people with special privileges, like chat moderation or membership control. The quest to achieve this status is often as much of an incentive as the content itself.

Ben Levin was attracted to these kinds of social networks. In late 2010, he registered on a self-described alternative sexual lifestyle site that Toronto police call “M,” which includes chat rooms covering child pornography, sex with children, incest with children and youth-related BDSM. Cops use a code name for the site both to discourage people from visiting it and so existing users don’t know the police are patrolling it. Levin created the profile BandB—named for Ben and Barbara (he used his wife’s name without her knowledge)—and peppered his bio with dashes of truth: he was an academic who lived in Canada, he was in his late 50s, he was married with three grown daughters.

The rest was all horrific fiction. He said that he and his wife liked to have sex with children together and claimed they were both interested in chatting with other parents of daughters. Over the next two years, he acquired 144 contacts on the site, many of whom indicated sexual interest in kids, and 29 subscribers who would be automatically updated every time he posted images or stories. More than 5,000 people viewed his profile, and 44 people favourited his posts. He was active on several other sites as well, though they weren’t part of the ensuing police investigation. For Levin, viewing child pornography was a social pursuit, consistent with how he approached the world in general—he was as popular online as he was in real life.

M’s incest chat room quickly became one of Levin’s favourite destinations. He began telling other users that he and his wife had been sexually active with his daughters when they were 12, 13 and 16; anyone under six was too young. He liked to pretend his wife initiated the incest. He told people he wished he’d had a son so he could have had sex with him, too. He hoped that one day his daughters would share their children with him. Eventually, as his contact list grew, Levin oscillated between chatting about his own family and begging for stories from other parents who had abused their children.

Ever the meticulous researcher, Levin kept a Word document cataloguing 1,750 individuals—his contacts on M, plus the people he’d met on other sites and through his prolific use of instant messaging. He noted their usernames, ages and locations, their sexual desires, their children’s ages, and what they liked to do with their children. He also included snippets of text from their chats, presumably so he could remind himself of what they’d talked about. Levin’s sheet served both to keep his ever-expanding list of friends organized and to weed out what he called the “fakes,” a phrase he used to describe people he deemed not genuinely interested in having sex with children—dilettantes whom he believed were there out of curiosity, not desire. Their existence disrupted the fantasy of the depraved world he had created.

Two years into Levin’s online activities, the child exploitation unit became aware of him. They found Levin’s profile through a routine investigation of online chat rooms. He was brazenly transparent about his offline identity: he sent pictures of himself and his family to contacts and bragged about his prestigious career. His chat partners didn’t have to work hard to get him to talk—he directed the conversation. Toronto police quickly figured out that BandB and Ben Levin were one and the same.

When they ran his username through an international database, it popped up. He’d already struck up a conversation with Angela Johnson, a detective constable with the London, Ontario, exploitation unit, who was posing online as a mother of three. During their chat, he bragged about abusing his own children and swiftly connected Johnson with another user so they could have a three-way conversation about what they did to their kids. Around the same time, he also started talking to Russell Joe Gray, a covert Internet investigator in New Zealand. Levin took a special interest in Gray, sending him several images and claiming he had girlfriends all over the world, including one in New Zealand whose 13-year-old daughter Levin had fantasized about. In June 2013, he wrote a story at Gray’s behest that imagined a violent sexual assault of a 10-year-old girl.

The investigators deduced that if Levin was talking to undercover officers, it likely meant he was also chatting with—and possibly counselling—other people with real sexual interest in children. He boasted about all the conferences he was attending and talked openly of trying to secure access to a real child while he was on business trips. He thought he was untouchable—and that’s what did him in. “People on these sites are usually extremely careful,” says Kim Gross. “But Levin was pompous. He was confident. He’d been doing it for a while.”

The Toronto Police Service set up a sting, sending Detective Constable Janelle Blackadar undercover. Blackadar is a blunt, muscular 45-year-old woman who joined the child exploitation unit nine years ago. “I’m not going to lie, it isn’t the easiest job,” she admits. “But if we’re in a position where we can identify an offender and potentially rescue a child, that outweighs the negative.”

Blackadar created a profile on M, posing as a young, single, submissive mother who was sexually interested in her eight-year-old daughter. In Levin’s mind, he was this young woman’s master, slowly but steadily grooming her to assault her child to please him. When Blackadar claimed she’d touched the girl sexually, Levin only encouraged her to continue. According to Blackadar, never once, not even when she expressed hesitation or guilt, did Levin ever say, “Okay, maybe you’re right; we shouldn’t do this.”

“That’s true counselling, not fantasy,” says Gross. “He believed it was happening.”

It was the evidence the police needed to build a case—one that could stand up against whatever expensive lawyer Levin would hire. They prepared a search warrant and tracked Levin’s schedule so they’d know when he was home. It was essential that they obtain all of his electronic devices, especially those he used while travelling. In the early morning of July 8, 2013, just under a year after he’d first established contact with Blackadar, Toronto police raided Levin’s house and arrested him. (Barbara was on a canoe trip in the Northwest Territories with their daughter Anna.) Officers seized three laptops, 11 flash drives, a camera memory card, his smartphone, and an external hard drive that contained 79 JPEGs and videos of child pornography either saved or cached.

Sentencing guidelines divide child pornography into five levels: images depicting erotic posing with no sexual activity, sexual activity between children or solo masturbation by a child, non-penetrative sexual activity between adults and children, penetrative sexual activity between adults and children, and sadism or bestiality. Levin’s collection spanned all five categories. He was charged with seven offences, including possessing and distributing child pornography, making written child pornography and, most serious of all, counselling to commit sexual assault—his grooming of the undercover Blackadar. Levin’s mug shot from that day shows a man with a grizzled five o’clock shadow and a flat, downturned expression on his face—an important man who looks as though he never thought he’d get caught.

July 8, 2013. Police arrested Levin after seizing three laptops, 11 flash drives, a smartphone, a camera memory card and a hard drive containing 79 images of child pornography (Image: courtesy of Toronto Police Service)

In the days after his arrest, Levin denied everything, and his family formed a protective bubble around him. Two of his brothers—Martin, the former books editor at the Globe and Mail, and Richard, a registrar at U of T—posted his $100,000 bail. Barbara continued to support Ben unconditionally; she said she considered herself fortunate to have such a loving, caring, supportive husband. She insisted he was a good father and someone she’d always felt safe around. But she wasn’t completely blind in her trust: she did speak with her daughters following the news of the charges. Each told her emphatically that Levin had never abused them, and that they would also stand by him. The family reached out to friends and relatives, who reported back with the same assurance—Ben had never done anything to hurt them.

Martin Levin’s public support was particularly surprising. His son Daniel had been sexually assaulted from kindergarten to Grade 2 by a rabbi. In 1993, as a teenager, Daniel had pursued charges and given a statement to police. He was asked to come in a second time a few months later but couldn’t seem to face recounting his abuse again. He killed himself on Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement. In a 2011 documentary on sex scandals in religion, Martin spoke of the rabbi and of how infuriated he was at the number of people who came to the man’s defence. Of child molesters in general, he said, “These people have developed a kind of persona. I won’t necessarily call it charisma, but they have a kind of force.… They can counterfeit a kind of tremendous leadership. So many of these people seem to be trusted, seem to be regarded as community leaders. This is a disguise of some sort.”

And yet, even after Ben’s arrest, Martin wrote to the court championing his brother’s positive attributes, that he’d always been unfailingly warm, generous and supportive. “What is most puzzling to me,” he added, “is that I have never seen even the faintest indication of anything untoward or inappropriate in his behaviour toward my children, or his own.” Martin’s surviving kids, Adam, Gavriel and Rifka, also wrote a letter, noting the devastating effects that sexual abuse had had on their family—they did not take the subject lightly. Still, they too stood by Ben, though they admitted it was a struggle to reconcile their responsible, loving uncle with his online persona. “We believe this behaviour to have been an aberration of a psychological nature,” they wrote. In letters to the court, his circle of supporters cocooned themselves in euphemistic language. They danced around his predilection for child pornography, referring to it as “these things,” “something like this,” “mistakes” and a “stupid thing.”

The academic world reacted swiftly to the news of Levin’s arrest. The University of Toronto decided it couldn’t have a man charged with child porn offences teaching future teachers how to teach. It barred Levin from campus, refusing his offer to help his doctoral students transition to another advisor. Julia O’Sullivan, OISE’s dean, told Levin his now-former students could choose to interact with him, but he couldn’t meet them on campus. The school couriered his office belongings—books, papers, personal items—to his house. “With OISE’s educational mission with children, and the very wide publicity of this matter,” O’Sullivan wrote, “your continuing presence may have an adverse effect on OISE and its ability to conduct its program.”

Levin’s speaking offers were quickly rescinded. York Region asked him to skip its Quest education conference, where he was to be a keynote speaker; the Manitoba Association of School Superintendents told him not to bother attending their team planning workshop or finishing his article for their fall journal; and he was disinvited from two College of Alberta School Superintendents workshops, plus their leadership conference the following year in Banff. The publisher Nelson Education pulled a fourth edition of his co-authored book Understanding Canadian Schools. At OISE, the student journal ran an op-ed pondering what to think about Levin’s respected body of work, asking: “Can, and should, we separate a person from her or his scholarship?”

For most people, the answer was no. Joan Richardson, the editor-in-chief of the educational policy magazine Kappan and Levin’s long-time editor, was stunned when she heard the news. She immediately called Levin, telling him he couldn’t continue to write for the publication. Levin was gracious and cordial, she told me. “He said, ‘Absolutely, I understand. I don’t know how you could make any other decision.’ ” She paused before her voice hit a low octave of grief. “I like Ben very much. He’s not only an extraordinary scholar. He’s a lot of fun. He’s a really nice, interesting, charming and funny man.”

Many friends and colleagues immediately ceased contact. They were unable to square Levin’s actions with the man they knew. “This is, obviously, a difficult issue for me,” one of Levin’s mentors and co-authors remarked. “I am still working through how to make sense of these events and my relationship with a colleague and friend.” Levin’s former colleague and co-author Jane Gaskell refused to discuss the case or their personal relationship. When I asked if she considered him a friend, she went silent for so long I thought she’d hung up on me. “I mean, yes,” she finally replied. The interview never recovered. Another old friend, the U.K.-based education scholar Ron Glatter, told me, “Levin’s actions will affect the way his very impressive work is regarded, which is extremely sad.”

In the months after he was charged, Levin’s message never wavered: he didn’t do these horrible things. He hired the high-profile defence lawyer Clayton Ruby, the same man who famously won an acquittal for Guy Paul Morin and sat on the Royal Commission investigating Donald Marshall Jr.’s prosecution. Ruby’s team maintained that Levin would fight the heinous charges against him. He was anxious to go to trial, the legal team insisted, where he would plead not guilty. With all the grisly evidence then under a publication ban, he was probably biding his time. He may have assumed his pedigree and cracker-jack lawyer would salvage his career—and his reputation.

In the meantime, Levin had been seeing a psychiatrist and a psychotherapist, where he confessed to his online behaviour. He also attended a sex offender therapy program at Toronto’s Manasa Clinic, an association of forensic health practitioners. His psychiatrist, Julian Gojer, said that throughout his sessions, Levin admitted he’d justified and minimized his actions, deflecting their seriousness by convincing himself no one was really getting hurt.

Slowly but steadily, Levin’s confidence eroded. The evidence was highly damning and his best course of action seemed to be a plea bargain. In early 2015, nearly two years after Levin was first charged, his lawyers announced he’d made a deal with the Crown, pleading guilty to three of the seven original charges against him: making written child pornography, child porn possession and counselling another person to commit sexual assault. “I apologize unreservedly,” he wrote. “I am deeply ashamed of these actions, and highly aware that they have caused a great deal of hurt to many people. I am appalled every day that my behaviour fell so far below my own standards.”

Even after pleading guilty, Levin still seemed determined to project the image of a good guy diverted by a momentary lapse—as if he’d nicked a few cigarettes and fallen in with a rough teen gang. He’d repeat this sentiment to his psychiatrist, in conversation with family and friends, and also, loudly, in his legal defence. His page-long open letter to the court pointed out that only a “small” number of child porn images were found on his computer, that he’d not been charged with having any actual sexual contact with any person, that no victims ever came forward despite an appeal from the cops, and that he had lost his livelihood. He defended his actions by saying he’d been stressed under the weight of his oppressive workload. His mother had recently died, and he was grieving her loss. He came up with excuses to explain away his behaviour. “Many people have done wrong things when they should have known better,” Levin said, promising he’d work hard to redeem himself.

It was a strategic setup for what would become Levin’s bid for a short jail sentence: he had some alarming fantasies, but he’d never intended to act on them. They’d never existed before 2010, he would later contend, and, after treatment, they’d vanished—he was magically cured. Many people in Levin’s life purported to believe the version he put forward, including family, friends and, of course, Levin himself.

Gojer, Levin’s psychiatrist, diagnosed him with “pedophilic interest,” not pedophilia. The scientific community isn’t unanimous on the existence of such a distinction, but some believe that pedophiles are sexually interested exclusively in children while those with pedophilic interest are aroused by adults as well. Gojer noted that Levin’s pedophilic tendencies were interwoven with sadistic impulses. To the experts I spoke with, that combination was particularly troubling, indicating individuals who are aroused by the pain and humiliation of others, who prefer non-consenting, coerced sex, and who want to be violent toward a child.

The majority of modern researchers believe pedophilia is similar to a sexual orientation: it appears at the onset of sexual maturity, it’s developed biologically in the brain, and it can’t be eliminated by therapy or medication (though it can be controlled by both). Every expert I interviewed said the idea that someone would suddenly develop sexual interest in children late in life was highly dubious—akin to a man being gay for five years. They believe it was always there, even if it was repressed.

According to Levin, it was all just an elaborate game of make-believe. “Human existence is full of fantasy,” Gojer told the court. “We are rich, we can go places. We can do anything in fantasy.” But while Levin says he never intended to touch a child, he did speak on the phone with parents who wanted to molest their children, and he met in person with at least one. He had every reason to believe children were getting hurt.

Levin acquired an army of rabid critics, people who believed he was instrumental in developing Ontario’s new sex education curriculum as a grooming manual for child abuse (the Ministry of Education has said he wasn’t involved in its creation). In dozens of letters written to the court, Levin’s opponents urged the judge to sentence him to the maximum jail time allowed, adding that “his perverted sexual attraction to children” had guided his professional life. One New Brunswick man wrote that he was “a creepy little man” and that “anyone with more IQ points than teeth sees [his work] as deliberately and prematurely sexualizing children.”

A group of Levin-haters came to his sentencing hearing in April. At the dingy Finch West courthouse, I spoke to one who told me he had a grandchild in kindergarten. He’d ridden his motorcycle from Niagara Falls that morning and carried his helmet and leather jacket into the courtroom with him. He said he came because he wanted to see Levin go to prison. “That’s where he belongs.”

It was clear the two years since the arrest had been tough on Levin. He appeared crumpled in on himself—embarrassed and tired, but past the worst of the shock. During the proceedings, he scribbled furiously on a yellow notepad, its pages furling as he flipped through them and cross-connected. Every time I looked at his face, he seemed engaged, empathetic and inquisitive. It was the expression that had charmed people the world over.

Thirty-five people wrote character references to the court on Levin’s behalf. Many of them insisted they were still loyal to their friend and colleague, and that he had suffered enough. Barbara wrote that she did not condone what her husband did, but that she believes him when he says he never intended to have sexual contact with a child in real life. The charges ended his professional career and eviscerated his income, she said. In March 2014 his nameplate was removed from U of T—something not done for other retired faculty. “All of this [the loss of his reputation and respect of his colleagues] has been very hard on him,” she wrote. “That was a huge loss for him that strikes at the core of the person he is and what matters to him.”

His daughter Clare’s letter stressed that she had no concerns about her father having a relationship with her own daughter, then a toddler. Ruth wrote about how sorry she knew her dad was, and that he was prepared to work hard to ensure that he never repeated the same mistakes, to rebuild the trust in his relationships, and to make “very dramatic lifestyle changes,” which seemed to mostly include seeking professional help and opening up to his family about his actions and feelings. Anna echoed her sisters, explaining that her father was a hard worker and that lifelong dedication would follow through to his commitment to change. His brother Martin added that Ben was deeply remorseful—that he constantly apologized, even at family events, which he and Barbara continued to hold throughout his time on bail.

In most of his friends’ letters to the court, Levin is depicted as someone who has already paid a price—and someone who still has much to offer the world. Many people mentioned that he has volunteered since his arrest. “We believe society would benefit far more by putting his talents to work serving the education and justice systems,” one family friend wrote. Another said, “I see no point in sending Ben to prison. With his loss of reputation and career he has learned his lesson.”

Dozens of Levin’s esteemed former colleagues also wrote references, including Diane McGifford, a former MLA in Manitoba; John Stapleton, the dean emeritus at the University of Manitoba; Jim Brandon, the director of professional programs at the University of Calgary; Penny Milton, the former CEO of the Canadian Education Association and the past chair of the Toronto board of education; and Scott Swail, the president and CEO of the Educational Policy Institute in the U.S.; as well as academics in Australia, Jerusalem, Wales, California and England, and a member of the Mistapawistik Cree Nation. They all spoke of Levin’s brilliance and contribution to education policy. They grieved the loss of his voice in the field. One went as far as to call him “one of the Three Wise Men of education.”

Levin returned to court for his sentencing verdict at the end of May in a dark suit that appeared oversized on his frame. At one point, as Justice Heather McArthur catalogued the details of his crimes, Levin shook his head back and forth erratically. Referring to Gojer’s diagnosis, McArthur said “he was of the opinion that Levin was on the extreme end of the sado-masochist spectrum as it relates to the sexual abuse of children.” She acknowledged Levin was “a man who is loved and admired by many”—someone who had good support for rehabilitation. She believed he was genuinely remorseful. But she also wanted to send a clear message: denunciation and deterrence. “He more than most would know how horribly, horribly wrong this was,” she said.

The defence had been pushing for a maximum of two years in jail; the Crown for three and a half. McArthur sentenced Levin to three. The police tell me they’re happy with the outcome. “He’s being treated like everybody else who we consider a predator of children,” Blackadar says. Kim Gross takes solace in the fact that she and her team destroyed Levin’s future, that he’ll have to live the rest of his life as a registered sex offender. “I wish you good luck, sir,” McArthur told him as he stood, shakily, his head briefly whipping back to where Barbara and his brothers sat in stunned silence. Another look was spared for Ruby, who clasped his meaty hand on Levin’s shoulder and murmured something quietly. Levin leaned in, responded with a simple “Thank you,” and then placed his hands behind his back for the court sheriff to cuff them. I watched as he stood next to the giant officer, shrunken and defeated. A few seconds later, he was whisked away into a corridor, on his way to prison.