House arrest

Stephen Witvoet

A former physiotherapist in Vernon, who admitted to sexually assaulting nine female patients during their treatment, has been spared jail time.

Stephen Witvoet received an 18-month conditional sentence recently.

Provincial court Judge Jeremy Guild accepted the joint submission from the Crown and defence.

“Even if the proposed sentence might be considered unusually lenient, the Supreme Court of Canada has made it clear that a joint submission can make what might otherwise be an unfit sentence a proper one,” wrote Guild in his judgment.

The sentence includes six months of house arrest and an order to be under curfew from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. for the remaining 12 months. That’s followed by two years’ probation.

“The publicity has left him feeling like a pariah,” wrote the judge.

In addition to the conditional sentence, Witvoet’s personal fallout includes serious repercussions with his family; impact on his overall standing in the community; and major career consequences, said the judge. Given Witvoet’s “notoriety,” his neighbours and the community will all know of his restrictions.

Witvoet owned and operated Thrive Physiotherapy when the offences happened. The assaults involved directly massaging patients’ breasts and, for three women, having their vaginal area touched or rubbed.

The judge said Witvoet violated the doctor-patient relationship.

“The victims went to see Mr. Witvoet for pain relief. They trusted him. He abused that trust,” said Guild.

The former physiotherapist’s youngest victim was an 18-year-old woman who saw him for treatment of flat feet and a bad back.

“On one occasion, he pulled her pants below her hip bones and tucked her underwear under her shorts and began to rub her pubic bone and groin area,” wrote Guild in his judgment.

Those he treated were left “feeling like they were mere sexual objects, rather than patients,” said the judge.

Witvoet’s guilty plea was a significant mitigating factor.

Guild said without guilty pleas, “the justice system would likely fail…. Negotiated guilty pleas avoid that potential disaster, which is in the public interest,” he wrote. “In this case, there could have been four trials. The trial where Mr. Witvoet was charged with 12 offences would be complicated and take considerable time. In that respect, by pleading guilty, Mr. Witvoet has contributed to the proper functioning of the justice system.”

Witvoet had originally been charged with two offences alleged to have occurred in 2015 and 2016. The initial May 2019 trial did not finish, and more time was to be scheduled for its continuation. In June 2019, Witvoet was charged with two new offences of sexual assault, and police requested that other potential victims come forward. Several more former patients made reports to police, and Witvoet was charged with 12 more similar offences, with each charge relating to a different person.

After extensive negotiations that occurred mid-trial, Witvoet entered the guilty plea.

Born in Toronto, Witvoet was in his late 40s as the case progressed.

He was married and has two children in their teens. “Unsurprisingly, these charges have put his family under pressure, so he and his wife separated,” said the judge. “He was raised as a religious Christian and those beliefs are a foundation for most of his life, including being a good father, involved with his children and their activities.”

Witvoet worked as a volunteer in BMX racing and helped others as a physiotherapist for a Paralympic team.

In January 2017, after complaints were made, his practice was restricted and supervised; however, at least one offence was committed after supervision had begun.

The judge noted the Crown made extensive submissions about how the guilty pleas had a positive and significant impact in the victims.

“Many of the victims had not disclosed to their partners and family what had happened to them. Testifying would result in a significant intrusion into their lives in a very public way, given the media attention these proceedings have engendered,” said Guild.

“The knowledge that something had happened to each victim would not just be revealed to family: a publication ban would not prevent their having to take time off work, so employers would know. Friends would likely know. Being spared the necessity of testifying helped protect their privacy and save them from embarrassment. That was one of the main goals in the Crown arriving at the joint submission.”

The recent decision had been scheduled for March 20, but was delayed due to the COVID-19. Guild said the pandemic had no weight on his decision.