No jail time for Vernon physiotherapist 'fails to grasp' harm of sexual assault: law prof | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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No jail time for Vernon physiotherapist 'fails to grasp' harm of sexual assault: law prof

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A sentence of house arrest recently given to a Vernon physiotherapist guilty of sexually assaulting multiple victims while they were his patients is "deeply concerning," says a prominent B.C. law professor.

Janine Benedet said the case highlights a continuing unwillingness to recognize the seriousness of sexual assaults in the justice system.

"I'm surprised by the sentence and concerned that it doesn't really reflect the gravity of what this individual plead guilty to," Benedet said. "(It) really fails to grasp how harmful this behaviour is, how likely it is to be repeated, and how predatory it really is."

Over a period of nine years, Stephen Witvoet sexually assaulted multiple women, abusing their trust while he treated them for a variety of issues.

In July 2015 the first victim came forward to police after Witvoet massaged both of her breasts under her sports bra with his hand during a treatment session. While no charges were laid, the RCMP spoke to him about the complaint. Almost 18 months later another victim came forward to police after Witvoet massaged her breasts during a treatment. Police contacted the initial victim and over a year later in December 2017, Witvoet was charged with two counts of sexual assault for the incidents. He continued to practice out of Thrive Physiotherapy and Sport Injury Clinic which he owned.

In May 2019 reported on the trial and soon afterwards more victims came forward. By August 2019 he was facing 16 charges of sexual assault, all from female patients who had all been to see him for treatment.

In Judge Jeremy Guild's reasons for judgement read out at the Vernon courthouse on July 8, he said on one occasion Witvoet pulled the shorts of an 18-year-old patient "below her hip bones and tucked her underwear under her shorts and began to rub her pubic bone and groin area." He then put his hand under her bra and rubbed her breasts.

In another case, Witvoet approached a 25-year-old massage therapy student who he was mentoring and offered her treatment.

"During treatment, the accused put his fingers under her shorts and panties and touched the opening of her vagina," Judge Guild said in the decision.

In another sexual assault, Witvoet "slid his hand" under a 27-year-old's underwear and touched her vagina. He was treating her for a shoulder injury.

The judge said in all these cases, these 'treatments' were never explained, he never asked and was never given consent.

While several victims told they wanted Witvoet to do jail time for his crimes, a joint submission from Crown prosecutor Juan O'Quinn and defence lawyer Glenn Verdurmen argued for an 18-month conditional sentence. Ultimately, Witvoet was sentenced July 8 to six months of 24-hour house arrest, followed by 12 months under a 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew.

Benedet says she taken aback by the lenient sentence.

"Here's an individual that's got multiple victims, who was warned by the police that there had been a complaint yet continued to offend," she said.

The law professor says it's very hard to say what an approximate sentence would be, as sentencing in sexual assault cases varies widely, but she said 12 to 18 months jail time would have been far more appropriate.

Some of the principles of sentencing are to denounce unlawful conduct and the harm done to victims and to act as a deterrent to others.

"I think there needs to be a sentence that is a deterrent," one victim - who's name is covered under a court-ordered publication ban told "He needs to see some jail time. Even if it's just a generic deterrent, people need to know it's not okay and people see house arrest as a slap on the wrist."

Another victim echoed the sentiment.

"We all would have liked to have seen some time behind bars," she said.

Why the physiotherapist didn't get jail time comes down to a number of factors involving the criminal justice system and how the Crown prosecutor dealt with the case.

"There were a series of decisions that were made that progressively constrained the options," Benedet said.

Firstly, the Crown chose to proceed by summary conviction and not by indictment. The terms may not mean much to many, but prosecuting as summary conviction limits the maximum sentence to 18 months and allows house arrest to become an option. It's generally considered for less serious offences.

Judge Guild said this decision was made after "extensive discussions" between the Crown and defence – which are not part of the public record. The lawyers ultimately decided Witvoet would plead guilty to nine charges and submitted a joint submission that no jail time would be done.

In Canadian law judges are largely bound to follow a joint submission unless the judge finds the proposal would "bring the administration of justice into disrepute." The lawyers submitted other similar cases where men in a position of trust sexually assaulted victims and did not go to prison.

Judge Guild agreed to follow the lawyer's recommendations for no jail time, although on two occasions he asked them to provide more evidence to support their submission.

Benedet said the fact there are other similar cases with no jail time given is a problem in itself.

She is also critical of some of the judge's reasoning as to why he justified the sentence. The Judge points out Witvoet's good standing in the community and how he had lost everything, including his marriage and his practice.

"The publicity has left him feeling like a pariah. He may have to find a new career. He has been working in construction to make ends meet and support his family," the Judge said.

"There's a kind of continuing unwillingness to recognize the seriousness of this conduct and some of it comes from an idea that people who have elevated positions in society, who are respectable middle-class family men with good reputations in the community and committed in this case to their Christian faith," she said. "The loss of their reputation or the mere fact of being convicted for these offences is itself almost punishment enough... that just seems very odd to me."

"Do we say that someone who doesn't have that reputation in the community (and) with marginal employment and doesn't have a family should be sentenced more harshly? That really makes no sense."

Benedet also says it's "odd" that the Judge jumps to the conclusion Witvoet is at low risk to re-offend.

"I don't why we would say that," she said.

While Benedet says the Judge was right to agree to the joint submission, the fact the Crown felt a plea deal was necessary for a conviction highlights presumptions made in sexual assault cases.

O'Quinn had argued in court a guilty plea for nine of the charges saved 16 victims from going through the ordeal of a trial, pointing out there was no guarantee of a guilty verdict.

However, Benedet said this logic has serious flaws.

"We say it's so hard to get convictions in sexual assault cases and it's so difficult to get complainants to testify and the burden of proof is so high we just have to take what we can get and we've got this guilty plea and let's just go with it," Benedet said. "It's concerning to me if decisions were made about the seriousness of this offence based on an unwillingness to believe women's accounts or a skepticism that a judge or a jury would believe them when they talk about what happened to them... it perpetuates some of the problems we have in our system."

Benedet said the case highlights where the criminal justice system is compared to how the public's perception in light of the MeToo movement and other high profile sexual assault cases.

"The public perception has evolved and I don't think the judicial system has always caught up with that," she said. "The overall message that this sends is deeply concerning about really failing to grasp how harmful this behaviour is."

You can read the full decision here. 

To contact a reporter for this story, email Ben Bulmer or call (250) 309-5230 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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