‘Who are you supposed to trust if you can’t trust your doctor?’
Woman who alleges Ste. Anne family physician sexually assaulted her testifies on opening day of trial
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A Manitoba woman who alleges she was sexually assaulted by her family physician says she felt it was her “duty” to come forward after learning other women had gone to police with similar claims.
“Before that, I thought I was alone,” the woman testified Monday at the trial of Dr. Arcel Bissonnette.
Bissonnette, 63, is accused of sexually assaulting five female patients during medical examinations at the Ste. Anne Hospital and Seine Medical Centre.
Court heard all five women stepped forward after police issued a media notice in November 2020 announcing his arrest on charges involving six other female patients.
“When I realized there were other people out there, I thought it should be my duty to let authorities know,” the woman in court Monday testified.
The woman, who cannot be identified by name, said she visited Bissonnette for a physical exam in February 2015. She said during a pelvic exam, Bissonnette inserted and removed his fingers from her vagina up to four times.
“That I never experienced before,” said the woman, a longtime patient who described her prior relationship with Bissonnette as “very good.”
“I thought maybe he couldn’t find my ovaries,” she said. “I never had a doctor do that before.”
After conducting a breast exam, Bissonnette grabbed her file, held it against his left hip and turned to leave the examination room. The woman said she still had a question for Bissonnette and stopped him.
“It was then I saw he had a full erection,” the woman said. “He had pleated pants on, so it was quite noticeable.”
The woman said she felt “shocked” when she saw Bissonnette with an erection.
“I felt that doctors shouldn’t have reactions like that,” she said. “I felt embarrassed. I guess I felt betrayed in a way, too. Who are you supposed to trust if you can’t trust your doctor?”
The woman said she later visited a female doctor, hoping she would take her as a new patient, and told the doctor of seeing Bissonnette with an erection.
The woman said she visited the medical centre about two years later to renew a prescription and saw signs saying Bissonnette had to be accompanied by another staff member when conducting medical exams.
“I was very embarrassed,” the woman said, telling court she assumed it was her disclosure to the female doctor that resulted in the signage.
Defence lawyer Lisa LaBossiere questioned the woman’s memory of events, saying her testimony differed from what she previously told police and Crown prosecutors on several significant details. For instance, the woman told police that after the examination, Bissonnette left her alone in the exam room before returning several minutes later. The woman testified Monday that when Bissonnette left the examination room she went to a different room to wait for her bloodwork.
“It’s very well possible that the very first time you provided those details was in court today,” LaBossiere said.
“OK, yes, that’s fair,” the woman replied.
“I’m going to suggest you got dressed, he came back, and you discussed how the exam went,” LaBossiere said.
“The exam ended the way I stated today,” the woman countered.
LaBossiere alleged the woman could not have seen the signage about Bissonnette’s practice restrictions when she said she did, as it wasn’t posted until January 2019, a full year after her last appointment at the medical clinic.
With respect to the pelvic exam, LaBossiere suggested Bissonnette was “repositioning” his fingers to better examine her, supporting the woman’s speculation he was having difficulty locating her ovaries.
The trial is set for four weeks, and will include testimony from five alleged victims and an expert on medical examinations.
“This case is about whether during the course of medical examinations the complainants were touched in a sexual manner without their consent,” Crown attorney Renee Lagimodiere said in a brief opening address to Court of King’s Bench Justice Sadie Bond.
“The Crown’s theory is that Dr. Bissonnette used his position of trust and authority as a medical doctor to sexually assault patients who were seeing him for intimate and private medical examinations,” Lagimodiere said. “None of these women were expecting to be touched in a sexual manner. The sexual integrity of each of them was violated.”
Lagimodiere said the Crown will be making a similar fact argument in the case. If approved by Bond, that would allow prosecutors to use the evidence of one alleged victim to corroborate the evidence of another.
Bissonnette was initially charged in November 2020 with sexually assaulting six patients. More women stepped forward and he was ultimately charged with allegedly assaulting 22 patients between 2004 and 2017.
A trial involving six alleged victims last November ended with all charges stayed after prosecutors said late disclosure in the case left them with no reasonable likelihood of conviction.
Charges involving another alleged victim were stayed in advance of the current trial.
A third trial involving 10 alleged victims is set for February 2024.
Someone once said a journalist is just a reporter in a good suit. Dean Pritchard doesn’t own a good suit. But he knows a good lawsuit.