Woman assaulted in Bowring Park says mental health system failed her and alleged attacker

·5 min read
A 22-year-old man with autism was arrested Monday in Bowring Park, shown here in a file photo. The man is accused of sexually assaulting a woman sunbathing with her family. Everyone involved says the case is more complex than it appears on the surface. (Submitted by Joan Barry - image credit)
A 22-year-old man with autism was arrested Monday in Bowring Park, shown here in a file photo. The man is accused of sexually assaulting a woman sunbathing with her family. Everyone involved says the case is more complex than it appears on the surface. (Submitted by Joan Barry - image credit)

A woman who was allegedly attacked by a man with autism in a public park in broad daylight on Monday has three clear requests following her traumatic experience.

She wants to see people with complex needs get the help and supervision they require. She wants public parks in St. John's to be staffed with more security guards. And she wants bystanders to take action when they see someone in distress.

"This is very traumatic for me to make this public, but I feel have a duty to warn people," the woman said Tuesday. Her name is shielded by an automatic publication ban in cases of sexual assault.

Police confirmed Monday afternoon that a 22-year-old man is facing a single count of sexual assault in connection with an attack in Bowring Park. The man's father, Calvin Flynn, says his son is autistic and has complex needs that require constant supervision.

He snuck out of the house on Monday and went to Bowring Park, where he takes walks with his family almost every day. By the time his father caught up to him, he was in a police car.

The system is failing them. It's failing us. - Alleged victim

The woman said she had just gotten out of the park pool and was lying in the grass, sunbathing, when a man jumped on top of her. She said he moaned and grunted while pulling at her bikini bottom. The woman said her mother managed to pull him off her, while they both screamed for help. She said he continued chasing them around in circles, asking for a hug, for nearly 15 minutes while waiting for police to arrive.

Flynn says his son didn't intend to harm her, but the woman and her mother insist the man expressly said he was going to rape her.

She said it was clear he had a disability, and she questions whether he understood what he was doing — but it doesn't take away from the fear she experienced.

"We're not OK," she said. "I've been having constant panic attacks. I can't sleep. I'm shaking. I'm crying from one moment to the next."

Criminal court not the right venue, lawyer says

Flynn, who is not allowed to contact the woman, expressed his apologies during an interview with CBC News.

He said the family moved to St. John's four years ago to get access to better services for their son. Despite the move, Flynn said, his son has been turned away from program after program, and has been on a wait list for a psychiatrist the entire time they've been in the capital city. He said they're also in desperate need of a caretaker to give him and his wife a break.

The family has hired veteran lawyer Erin Breen to handle their case.

CBC
CBC

"There's a much bigger issue going on here and perhaps the criminal justice system is not the right venue for this to be playing out," Breen said. "The Crown attorney's office has to look at this file and determine whether or not it is in the public interest to proceed with a prosecution like this."

While a charge has been laid, the alleged victim said she wants to know more about his circumstances and history before deciding whether to go through with the criminal court process. She said she wants him to be supervised and have the services he needs to ensure nobody else is put at risk.

"I don't think that punishing this man is going to do any good," she said. "I do sympathize with his parents. It must be very difficult to have an adult child who is in that condition, who needs constant supervision. I understand … it must be very difficult for them. The system is failing them. It's failing us."

Don't fall into bystander effect, family warns

Despite the park being full of people on a hot summer day, she said, nobody aside from her mother jumped in to help while she was being attacked or while they were being chased.

The woman said she yelled at people to call 911 but most people just stared at them.

"I was shocked," she said, calling it a classic example of what's known as the bystander effect. "When things like this happen in public, nobody gets involved because there's so many people that everyone assumes someone else will do it, someone else will call the police. But if everyone makes that assumption, then nobody does anything. And I think that's what happened."

Her mother, who often goes for walks alone in the park, was upset there were no security guards to step in and separate the man from them while they waited for police.

"The park is huge, and never, never, never have I seen security and I just don't understand it," she said. "A park that size with so many people walking through there alone, there needs to be security."

What happens next?

It's now up to Crown prosecutors to decide whether to proceed with charges in criminal court.

Top prosecutor Lloyd Strickland said Tuesday it's unlikely his office would have all the information it needs at the moment a charge is laid, but it assesses evidence as it's collected to determine whether there's a reasonable likelihood of conviction, and whether it's in the public's best interest to proceed.

Malone Mullin/CBC
Malone Mullin/CBC

If a person cannot be found fit to stand trial due to diminished mental capacity, a case can go before the province's Mental Health Review Board.

Breen said she understands the woman's concerns and hopes there's another way to deal with the case and reach a just conclusion.

In the meantime, Breen said the Flynn family is improving its security system and taking steps to ensure their son doesn't slip out unnoticed again.

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