Ex-teacher and coach found guilty of sexual assault, interference


Rick Despatie, who now uses the last name Watkins, is expected to be sentenced later this year.

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A former Catholic high school teacher who pawed four young girls while helping them with mathematics has been found guilty on four counts each of sexual assault and sexual interference.

Rick Despatie, 60, a former teacher at St. Matthew Catholic High School who now uses the last name Watkins, was also found guilty of two counts of criminal harassment and one count of sexual exploitation.

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He was acquitted on nine other charges largely because Ontario Court Justice Ann Alder said she had concerns about the reliability of one complainant.

Still, Alder said the young women all told the court similar stories about Despatie leaning over their desks, putting his arms around their shoulders and touching their necks, legs and thighs while assisting them with math problems.

That “similar fact evidence,” Alder said, played a decisive role in the case. The victims, she said, were all young, between the ages of 11 and 13, and all were struggling with mathematics when they were touched inappropriately in the classroom by Despatie.

Taken together, she said, their testimony established Despatie’s “pattern of behaviour.”

The judge rejected Despatie’s testimony, during which he flatly denied touching the students in a sexualized manner. Despatie insisted he always kept the classroom door open during his 32-year teaching career, and only touched students “incidentally” to pat them on the back, give them a high five or to balance himself while kneeling at their desks.

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“If I got in anyone’s personal space, it wasn’t intentional,” said Despatie, who taught Grade 7 and 8 math for 28 years.

Alder said she 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. For example, she said, it was “almost ridiculous” to maintain he never closed his classroom door when with students.

“I do not believe, nor do I accept Mr. Watkins’ denials,” the judge concluded.

During the trial, one 13-year-old student told court Despatie touched her shoulders, arms and thighs right up to the underwear. Another said he touched her shoulder, over and under her shirt, pulled her bra strap and dropped a binder on the floor so he could watch her pick it up. Another Grade 7 student said Despatie would put his hand on her thigh, arm or shoulders every time she asked for math help and once rested his hand near her underwear.

Outside court, parents of two complainants said they remained concerned about how the school handled complaints about Despatie. They suggested the school tried to “sweep things under the carpet.”

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Several of the complainants testified they had been warned about Despatie before entering his classroom. Court heard some at the school had nicknamed him “Despedophile.”

During the trial, former St. Matthew vice-principal John Purificati testified he had never received any complaints about inappropriate touching by Despatie, also a longtime girls’ basketball coach, whom he described as a dedicated professional and “a good man.” Complaints about Despatie usually related to his tough approach in the classroom, Purificati said.

In her decision, the judge said she had serious issues with Purificati’s credibility as a witness and she levelled criticism at his suggestion 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 is expected to be sentenced later this year.

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