The on-again, off-again trial of former St. Matthew High School teacher Rick Despatie resumed last week with the testimony of two more former students who claim they experienced unwanted touching and sexual advances.
Despatie, 58, taught Grade 7 and 8 students at St. Matthew High School over a period of more than 15 years. During that time, he was also the coach of the girls’ junior basketball team.
In April and May of 2021, Despatie was charged with more than 54 offences involving 16 alleged victims. Having already been suspended by the Ottawa Catholic School Board during the police investigation, he was immediately let go once the charges – which include sexual assault and sexual exploitation – were laid. All of the girls were under the age of 16 at the time the alleged offences occurred.
At some point during the police investigation, Despatie legally changed his name to Rick Watkins.
Once arraigned, Despatie was released on bail under a number of conditions that include not contacting several people or their families, not being within 500 metres of where those people would be, not being within 500 metres of the school and not attending any public parks or public swimming areas where kids under 16 would reasonably be expected to be.
For the sake of prosecuting the case in a reasonable amount of time, the Crown Attorney’s office decided to pursue 14 charges involving four of the alleged victims.
Two of the alleged victims took the stand in September and testified that Despatie made several sexual advances against them. at during a “private detention” Despatie placed his hand on her thigh and moved it under her school uniform skirt until it brushed the edge of her underwear. At other times, Despatie would approach her during class and often put his hands on her.
She alleged that he would place his arm around her shoulder and stroking her upper arm or place a hand on her thigh while helping her work out a particular math problem. On occasion he would do both, she testified.
In cross-examining the witnesses, Despatie’s defence lawyer, Dean Embry, questioned their memory of the alleged incidents, at one point going so far as to challenged whether the incidents even happened at all.
When the trial resumed last week, another one of the alleged victims testified that Despatie sometimes made her to sit on his lap when they were alone in his class, and groped her breasts, thighs, and sometimes squeezed her neck to the point where it became painful.
After the alleged incidents, she felt “so dirty” that she would take showers and scrub herself until her skin turned red.
During cross examination, Despatie’s lawyer once again questioned whether incidents actually happened to which the young woman responded that she would “very much” disagree with the lawyer’s assertion.
The court has also heard from one of the alleged victim’s parents who testified that she went to the school’s vice principal at the time of the incidents to complain about Despatie’s behaviour “but nothing ever happened”. Since Despatie was charged, more than half a dozen parents have said they also brought complaints to the school’s administrators against Despatie and they were basically ignored.
Both the Ottawa Catholic School Board and the Ontario Teachers College have launched separate investigations into how the complaints were handled. The results of those investigations have not yet been made public. The trial continues.