‘I’ll never be the same whole girl I was,’ ex-student tells former Ottawa teacher’s sex-crimes trial

Ottawa Citizen [Ottawa, Ontario, Canada]

November 24, 2023

By Gary Dimmock

Crown Attorney argues for five years in prison for Rick Despatie, but his defence lawyer asks instead for one-year conditional sentence. A judge will decide next year.

Rick Despatie had everyone fooled at St. Matthew Catholic High School — except for his students.

The disgraced math teacher’s sex crimes went unchecked for seven years at the Orléans school until some brave young women came forward.Article content

Despatie, now 60, was found guilty in September of sexual assault, sexual interference and criminal harassment involving four former students, aged 12 and 13 at the time. All of this went on at the school, in math class or what the teacher called “private detentions.”

In a moving impact statement at a sentencing hearing on Friday, one victim said her life was so shattered that she was suicidal. But the young woman, still struggling with fear, anger and anxiety years later, summoned the courage to address her demon.

‘I’ll never be the same whole girl I was,’ she told court.

She said she found it difficult to trust men and recounted times when it was hard to see light at the end of the tunnel.

Incredibly, she still blames herself, saying she should have “tried harder” to make grownups believe her story when she was just 12.

Sadly, the young woman who helped end the teacher’s years-long pattern of sexually touching schoolgirls, wants therapy, but can’t afford it, she told court.

Despatie abused his position of trust as a teacher and celebrated basketball coach to molest four of his young female students.

The former students testified at trial, and so did Despatie.

One girl said every time she asked for help in math, Despatie couldn’t keep his hands off her. He touched her shoulders, arms and rubbed her thighs under her uniform skirt, right up to her underwear.

Another girl testified she was subjected to regular, ugly, unwanted advances by the teacher before class, during class and after class. The teen told court she would scrub in the shower until her skin turned bright red.

Despatie took the stand in his own defence and denied ever touching the girls in a bad way.

Ontario Court Justice Ann Alder found Despatie to be condescending, evasive, inconsistent and argumentative as a witness and unwilling to admit anything that cast a negative light on his position.

“I do not believe, nor do I accept (his) denials,” the judge concluded.

At Friday’s sentencing hearing, Assistant Crown Attorney Stephen Albers argued for a five-year prison sentence for the former teacher.

Albers noted Despatie’s years-long pattern of sexualizing the classroom, of all places, and said Despatie violated the girls’ protection, respect and integrity.

“He created an environment where he was able to offend repeatedly across the years,” Albers told court.

Albers also said Despatie’s sex crimes would have profound, untold future consequences on the young women. He noted the former students were vulnerable for different reasons and were groomed in light of how Despatie normalized the sexualization of the classroom.

The prosecutor also called for Despatie banned from being around kids or in any public places they gather and to never again be in a position of authority over them.

Despatie was fired when the police investigation neared its end in 2021.

Defence lawyer Dean Embry asked the judge to spare his client jail and instead give him a one-year conditional sentence that would have him “serve” his time at home under certain conditions to obey the peace.

The Toronto lawyer told Ottawa court that Despatie never groomed students, never created a role of trust, said there was no evidence he posed a risk to children, didn’t have a criminal record until September and had strong support from family, friends and former colleagues.

Embry noted that some former colleagues testified at trial and said good things about Despatie long after the criminal charges were announced.

Former St. Matthew vice-principal John Purificati testified he never received any complaints about Despatie’s sexual touching and described his colleague as a dedicated teacher and good man.

The trial judge said she had serious issues with Purificati’s credibility as a witness and criticized his suggestion that he could “read” children through body language and tone to discern if a complaint about a teacher was serious or not.

The judge called that boast “extremely concerning” and said it was exactly the kind of thing that appellate courts warned judges not to do during trials.

“I find that vice-principals have no more of a divine insight into children than judges do,” the judge said.

Despatie, who has since changed his last name to Watkins, is on bail awaiting sentencing next year.

On Friday, Embry portrayed Despatie as a man who had a crummy childhood, abused enough at home to get seized by the state, then bounced around foster homes until he was finally adopted at 15.

The defence lawyer said Despatie spent the rest of his life trying to give back to the community so kids could get chances he didn’t have.

When the judge asked if Despatie had anything to say at the sentencing hearing, his lawyer answered for him, saying no.

The Ottawa Catholic School Board said in 2022 it was investigating how the girls’ complaints were handled and why Despatie had been allowed to continue teaching. The school board has yet to publicly release its internal investigation report.