Doctor apologizes for letting a registered sex offender into a retreat for sex assault survivors

·5 min read
Dr. Manuela Joannou has posted a public apology to participants in one of her therapy retreats. (Laura Osman, CBC News - image credit)
Dr. Manuela Joannou has posted a public apology to participants in one of her therapy retreats. (Laura Osman, CBC News - image credit)

The doctor running Project Trauma Support now says she regrets her decision to allow a registered sex offender to peer mentor a group of sexual assault survivors with post traumatic stress disorder under her care.

Seven female first responders and Canadian Forces veterans shared their story publicly with CBC News yesterday. They said their trust was violated by Dr. Manuela Joannou because she failed to tell them their peer mentor recently had been convicted in two separate cases of sexual assault before attending the six-day trauma retreat in July 2018.

CBC News obtained an image of a statement posted by Joannou to Facebook on Wednesday apologizing to participants in her program.

"I am deeply saddened by the compounded hurt and pain that having a registered sex offender as a mentor on our program in 2018 has caused for so many people," Joannou wrote in the Facebook post.

"If I had a chance to do it all over again, this would not have happened. Did we make some errors in our early efforts? Undoubtedly, but it has shaped our awareness and our methods going forward."

 

The post comes a day after Joannou, in an exchange with CBC News, defended her actions and did not apologize for using retired Canadian Forces major Jonathan Hamilton as a peer mentor at the retreat.

Retreat participants said they were upset that Joannou's public apology came after several major donors to the program — including the Mood Disorder Society of Canada and the Royal Canadian Legion — severed ties with her charity in the wake of CBC's report and said they would not be funding it in future.

Joannou said she started Project Trauma in 2015 as a suicide prevention program. CBC News spoke to a Canadian Forces member who said she became suicidal after taking part in the program.

WATCH: Retired corporal said she left Project Trauma Support suicidal and is 'still hurting'

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The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO) investigated the case and advised Joannou in 2019 to be more careful in her hiring practices.

In her Facebook apology, Joannou wrote she now has code-of-conduct agreements for peer mentors to sign and is conducting police background checks on them.

"We fully intend to continue to offer our programming as we feel it is unethical to cease our mission that has resonated with so many," wrote Joannou. "We are committed to doing better …"

The Centre of Excellence on PTSD said Joannou's actions contravened its member agreement and it will no longer affiliate with her or Project Trauma Support.

"We stand shoulder to shoulder with those women impacted by this egregious act and recognize the deep hurt associated with this situation," said the Centre's CEO and president Dr. Patrick Smith in a media statement.

Military doctor stepping away from Project Trauma

The Canadian Armed Forces confirms its chief of rehabilitation medication has now left his volunteer role with Project Trauma Support in the wake of the story.

Lt.-Col. Markus Besemann, who has spent his career rehabilitating injured soldiers, had been volunteering with Project Trauma Support and is featured in uniform on the program's website. Some of the participants said they took part in 2018 because of Besemann's reputation in this field.

The Office of the Veterans Ombudsman said retired Brig.-Gen.Paul Rutherford has resigned from his role on the veteran's ombudsman advisory council and his name has been removed from its website in light of the CBC story.

Rutherford is the chair of Project Trauma Support's board of directors and also was an adviser to the veterans ombudsman. He and Joannou signed a letter in response to CBC's report, saying that "the truth cannot be realized by listening to one side of the story."

Veterans ombudsman Nishika Jardine said she was "deeply disturbed" by participants' accounts. 

"No one who has experienced sexual trauma should be placed in a position where a peer support mentor is a sex offender," said Jardine in a statement to CBC News. "Individuals who have experienced this type of trauma need the safest space possible to promote their healing."

Female participants of Project Trauma Support take part in a group hug at the centre of a labyrinth in Perth, Ont.
Female participants of Project Trauma Support take part in a group hug at the centre of a labyrinth in Perth, Ont.(Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

Crown attorney did not grant approval

Some of the women who participated in the retreat only learned the full extent of the mentor's criminal past this month after CBC News published a story about the military's handling of one of his court cases.

In 2017, a justice found Hamilton guilty of unlawfully entering a Kingston home and sexually assaulting retired Capt. Annalise Schamuhn on two different occasions. Hamilton also was convicted of twice physically assaulting Schamuhn's husband, retired major Kevin Schamuhn.

Hamilton was sentenced to three years parole as a result, according to the attorney general's office.

In a second, unrelated case, Hamilton was sentenced to three years in custody on April 20, 2018 after a jury found him guilty of two counts of sexual assault.

Joannou had told the CPSO she had permission from the Crown attorney and the court for Hamilton to participate in Project Trauma Support, according to a report from the college obtained by CBC News.

But the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General said Wednesday that while it did consent to Hamilton staying there as part of his community service, the Crown did not grant permission for him to be a peer mentor.

"I can confirm that the Crown did not authorize Mr. Hamilton's participation in any peer mentoring groups," ministry spokesperson Brian Gray said in a statement to CBC News.

WATCH: 'I feel kind of violated': First responder talks about Project Trauma Support

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