A military veteran has pleaded guilty to assault after touching a naval cadet's buttocks in 2019.
According to a joint submission in St. John's provincial court Wednesday, a visibly intoxicated 51-year-old Patrick Saunders groped a female colleague in a bar on Nov. 11, 2019, shortly before the bartender cut off his alcohol consumption.
The victim stated Saunders had been chatting and laughing with her as though they had been friends for years, said Crown attorney Jessica Gallant.
Saunders wrapped his arm around the victim's shoulders before moving it down to her waist and grabbing her buttocks. The woman lurched forward in surprise, according to her statement and witness sitting across the bar, but did not report the incident in order to avoid "making a scene," Gallant said. The victim said Saunders continued laughing and talking as he touched her.
The Canadian Forces National Investigation Service opened an investigation after a third party reported the assault.
Saunders was initially charged with sexual assault, but pleaded guilty to the lesser charge on Wednesday, receiving nine months' probation and a conditional discharge, which does not entail a permanent criminal record.
He was ordered by the court to maintain good behaviour, notify the court of any changes to address or occupation, and maintain a no-contact policy with the victim, whose identity is protected under a publication ban.
Case reflects societal views on consent: Crown
Saunders had no previous criminal record, and the Crown agreed that a guilty plea and probation would balance accountability and public interest. Gallant said the victim supported the plea bargain and sentencing recommendation.
"I think generally speaking, we're now in a society … where every individual can expect their bodily autonomy will be upheld," Gallant remarked.
"Individuals should expect that we as a society will take seriously when they are touched without consent, no matter what that looks like. And I think this particular situation is a reflection of that."
The military investigation was "quite comprehensive" and would have resulted in a lengthy trial, she said. "The investigators, I think, did a thorough job. They certainly took these allegations very seriously, and within a military context, it's a positive thing to see."
Saunders was a chief petty officer of the Armed Forces and served in Afghanistan, his lawyer said. He retired in 2017 from active duty but remained with the navy as a file manager.
He resigned earlier this year due to mental health pressures resulting from the sexual assault charge, his lawyer, Robert Hoskins, told the court, describing consequences to Saunders's career and personal life.
His wife, Chantal Davis, was acting commander at the time. She was relocated to Nova Scotia as a result of the charge and investigation, and has since resigned. Hoskins said his client's marriage was failing due to the assault.
"He is remorseful for his actions.… He needs this behind him to rehabilitate and grow," Hoskins said.
Saunders briefly addressed the court before the judge read his sentence. "I'd like to apologize for my actions and the consequences to [the victim] and my family," he said. "It's out of character for me."
The Canadian Armed Forces has faced an onslaught of sexual assault allegations in recent months, pointing to widespread misconduct within its ranks.
There have been 581 reports of sexual assault and 221 reports of sexual harassment in the Canadian military over the past five years, according to figures provided by the Department of National Defence in April.