University's response to sex assault allegations is sentence first, verdict afterwards

September 2014

As that nasty Queen of Hearts said in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, “No! No! Sentence first – verdict afterwards!”

So it goes for the men of the University of Ottawa’s varsity hockey team, suspended this week for the entire 2014-15 season — before the police have decided whether any charges will be laid and despite the fact that fully 21 of the players aren’t implicated in the alleged incident of sexual misconduct at the heart of the matter and that some of them, in fact, weren’t even in the city where the alleged offence may have happened.

Amusingly, sitting in for the King of Hearts (who in the Lewis Carroll story was the judge in the trial of an alleged tarts thief) and presiding over the entire Ottawa schmozzle is none other than university president Allan Rock, a lawyer who just happens to be a former Liberal justice minister.

He announced Wednesday that the suspension of the Gee-Gees hockey program, first imposed March 3 after the university learned about an alleged incident in Thunder Bay the month before, will continue this season and that the team’s coach, Réal Paiement, has been “relieved of his duties.”

Like most of his players, Mr. Paiement is not alleged to have been involved in the alleged incident.

In fact, he reportedly suspended a couple of players on his own initiative. His sin was in failing to report to the university brass.

The incident — Thunder Bay and Ottawa Police have completed their probe — apparently centres around what happened after a lone player posted his contact information on a hookup website while the Gee-Gees were in the northern city Jan. 30-Feb. 2 for two games against Lakehead University.

A local woman responded to the player and the two met for consensual sex.

But at some point, allegedly, two other players arrived on the scene: It is what may have happened then, and whether that was consensual, that is at issue in the police investigation.

Notably, the alleged victim herself was not the original complainant; rather, it was a friend, a so-called “third-party,” who first contacted the university in late February.

Mr. Rock didn’t respond personally to Postmedia questions Friday, but his spokesman, Patrick Charette, the director of corporate communications for the university, did.

He clung tenaciously to the fine distinction first made by Mr. Rock — that “we suspended the program,” not the players, and that it was the “right thing to do, because of the behaviour” or “serious misconduct” involved.

Asked for examples of the misconduct, Mr. Charette twice mentioned “excessive drinking” and, when pressed, “excessive dancing.”

Shortly after the allegations came to light, the university hired an independent investigator, Ottawa lawyer Steven Gaon, to probe them.

It’s his report that led to the decision to suspend the program, and Mr. Charette confirmed in a phone interview it will never be released publicly, ostensibly not to jeopardize the now-complete police probe (police are consulting prosecutors, with a decision expected soon) and out of concern for the players’ privacy.

All that has been publicly released is a six-page report, done by two sports management experts. It acknowledges that the university has “a very comprehensive student-athlete orientation process” for varsity athletes.

“However,” the authors wrote, “we identified that these policies are not all distributed in a written format nor are they clearly articulated in a student-athlete handbook.” They recommend better reporting guidelines for coaches, detailed “behavioural guidelines” for athletes and the establishment of an ethics committee.

Mr. Charette also acknowledged what Mr. Rock

admitted earlier — that “we understand that some players were not there [in Thunder Bay]” that weekend, and that most aren’t suspected to have been involved in criminal behaviour.

“We’re not the police,” Mr. Charette said several times. Rather, “it’s the behaviour” which concerns the university.

The impact on innocent players has been real, Ottawa lawyer Lawrence Greenspon said in an interview. He represents “eight or nine” Gee-Gees players, all of whom co-operated in the investigations and who are now considering a lawsuit.

“I’m representing guys who were nowhere near the scene of the alleged incident,” he said, “who have no first-hand knowledge.”

One is a young man who attends the university on a hockey scholarship, Mr. Greenspon said, and whose future is now in limbo. (Mr. Charette said the university will honour those on hockey scholarships, just not the hockey part.)

Mr. Greenspon was disdainful of the parsing done by Mr. Rock.

“That [sort of hair-splitting] may fly in the House of Commons,” Mr. Greenspon sniffed, “but it’s a little bit rich… the players are the program.”

At the very time the allegations surfaced last February, the university was already in crisis mode after a student union leader, Anne-Marie Roy, went public with a sexually lewd Facebook conversation about her among five male students.

All quickly apologized, and those who held positions with the union resigned, but the revelations sparked much debate about how pervasive or not was “rape culture” on campus. Mr. Rock met with Ms. Roy to offer his support and condemned “attitudes about women and sexual aggression” that have “no place on campus or anywhere else in Canadian society.”

It was during that over-wrought time that the university first learned of the allegations involving the players and suspended the team — er, program — indefinitely.

The immediate impact was perhaps best described last March by a graduating player, Pat Burns, who tried in vain to protest some of the immediate effects of the suspension.

He wrote an open letter to Mr. Rock, after his hand-delivered plea for an appointment went unanswered. Mr. Burns was “un-invited” to the reception for graduating athletes and the annual athletic banquet.

“…what about the exoneration of those found to be innocent?” he asked in his letter, and those damaged by “the university’s decision to suspend the entire program prior to any investigation?”

It was his version of what Alice told the Queen of Hearts, “Stuff and nonsense. The idea of having the sentence first!”

“Off with her head!” said Mr. Rock.