‘I felt my soul was broken’: Women sexually assaulted by Manitoba doctor call for accountability

Through tears, several women who were sexually assaulted by a Manitoba doctor told the court how they were taken advantage of by a person they trusted, leaving them disgusted and broken.

Arcel Bissonnette sat quietly in the gallery of a Manitoba courtroom during his sentencing hearing Thursday. He took down notes as some of the women he sexually assaulted detailed to the court how his actions impacted them.

“I felt my soul was broken,” one woman said through tears while delivering a victim impact statement.

 “I’ve been to countless hours of counselling and I cannot for the life of me move on from the actions that played out during the assault and the years that have followed.”

Back in 2020, the 64-year-old man was charged with 22 counts of sexual assault – all of which were said to have occurred while Bissonnette was working as a family doctor at the Ste. Anne Hospital and the Seine Medical Centre.

All but seven of those charges have since been stayed by the Crown.

Bissonnette was found guilty of five counts of sexual assault following his trial last year. He later pleaded guilty to two more counts. The court has heard Bissonnette sexually assaulted these seven women during medical exams between 2001 and 2017.

One of the women, who found herself in Bissonette’s exam room in 2001, said she felt vulnerable but needed urgent medical attention.

“Despite my discomfort and vulnerability, I believed it was a safe place. It should have been a safe place,” she said. “I knew something disgusting had happened to me in that appointment, but my mind could not even comprehend that a doctor could do something so abusive in a clinic in a small town where everyone knows him.”

Crown Prosecutor Renee Lagimodiere told the court Bissonnette enjoyed the privilege of being a doctor in a small rural community and the unquestioning trust of his patients.

“Under the guise of medical examinations, he breached that trust in the most egregious of ways,” she said.

The Crown has asked the court for a sentence of 18 years, along with a lifetime sex offender registry order. Lagimodiere pointed to Bissonnette’s position of power and authority over his patients.

“Instead of providing medical care that each of the victims was seeking, the offender touched them in sexual ways in a fashion that violated each of their sexual integrity,” she said. “The impact of his offending on each of the victims is significant. His offending has also had an egregious impact on society.”

His defence lawyers argued 18 years would be unduly long, harsh and crushing, asking instead for a nine-year sentence. They said there are several ‘mitigating factors’ such as his advanced age, his lack of any previous criminal record, the support of his family and friends, and his ‘good character’

“The fact that he has family and friends’ support, which I submit bodes well for the prospect of rehabilitation,” Josh Weinstein, one of his defence lawyers, argued.

Defence Lawyer Lisa LaBossiere also pointed to a forensic psychologist’s report that found Bissonnette was at a low risk to reoffend.

“At the end of the day, I would submit that he does not need to be put in jail to keep people safe because of that low risk to re-offend, because of the fact that he will not be practising as a doctor,” she said.

Bissonnette’s victims told the court the former doctor must be held accountable for what he did.

“I am going to remain hopeful that no one shall have to live through this ever again at the hands of the man who assaulted me,” one of the victims said.

The identities of the victims are protected under a publication ban.

When asked if he would like to say anything, Bissonnette stood and told the court he had nothing further to add beyond what his lawyers had told the court. His defence team declined comment outside the court house.

Justice Sadie Bond has reserved her decision until the end of August. 

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