WARNING: This article contains graphic content and may affect those who have experienced sexual violence or know someone affected by it.
Lawyers for a former Manitoba doctor accused of sexually assaulting his patients presented their closing arguments in court Tuesday, maintaining he was performing medical exams in a proper way.
But the Crown challenged that assertion, pointing to expert testimony that suggests the exams he performed were uncommon for a family doctor, and that the way he did them was unnecessary.
Arcel Bissonnette is accused of assaulting female patients when he worked in Ste. Anne, southeast of Winnipeg, between 2004 and 2017.
He was initially charged in 2020 with six counts of sexual assault. After those charges were announced, more complainants came forward, and 16 more counts were added in October 2021.
A judge-only trial before Court of King’s Justice Sadie Bond was held in May on five of the 22 counts, after a sixth charge was stayed.
During the trial, the court heard testimony from five of Bissonnette’s former patients, as well as a family doctor and a doctor who specializes in gynecological cancers who testified as expert witnesses.
The women testified that Bissonnette performed vaginal, rectal and/or breast exams on them in ways that made them feel uncomfortable, seemed sexual in nature and that they did not consent to.
Some witnesses also testified they observed Bissonnette had an erection afterward.
On Tuesday, defence lawyer Josh Weinstein argued that the Crown failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the touching was sexual in nature, or that the complainants didn’t consent to the medical exams.
He said any touching Bissonnette did was done in a medically appropriate way to be thorough and check for abnormalities. He pointed out that his client testified that he found nothing “erotic or sexual” about it.
“Dr. Bissonnette should leave this courtroom the same way he entered, with the presumption of innocence.”
Earlier in the day, Weinstein’s co-defence counsel Lisa LaBossiere noted several inconsistencies in the witnesses’ testimony, such as differences between what they told police versus what they testified in court.
Bissonnette sat in the front row of the courtroom just behind his lawyers Tuesday, quietly taking notes while sitting with a female companion.
Crown prosecutor Renee Lagimodiere pointed out that during the trial, medical experts testified that some of the exams Bissonnette performed on the complainant were not common for a family physician to do.
She said one of the experts testified that one of the exams in particular, the bimanual pelvic, is not typically used as part of routine screening and that there was no medical reason to repeatedly insert and remove fingers into a patient’s vagina.
Another medical expert was a family doctor who testified she never did the exam as part of her practice at all, Lagimodiere told the court.
On the issue of consent, Lagimodiere said the first witness in the trial told the court that while she assumed her physical would involve a pelvic exam, Bissonnette did not tell her what he was going to do before he inserted his fingers into her vagina.
“There is no medical reason to do it that way,” she said.
Lagimodiere also called Bissonnette’s credibility into question, telling the court that he relied mostly on his notes which were inconsistent and/or lacking detail.
She also argued that the accused often referred to how a procedure would generally be done, whereas the complainants testified to their own experiences.
The matter was adjourned to Wednesday afternoon, where the Crown will wrap up its submissions.
Bissonnette is set for another trial in February 2024 on the remaining 10 counts.
A trial on the original six charges was held in January 2023, but the Crown entered a stay of proceedings, saying the likelihood of conviction had changed after new evidence came to light.
Support is available for anyone who has been sexually assaulted. You can access crisis lines and local support services through this Government of Canada website or the Ending Violence Association of Canada database. If you’re in immediate danger or fear for your safety or that of others around you, please call 911.