A Toronto court has found Dr. George Doodnaught, an anesthesiologist, guilty of sexually assaulting 21 women while they were under conscious sedation in a hospital.

The verdict was handed down in a packed courtroom shortly after 10 a.m. ET Tuesday, bringing tears to the eyes of many of the victims present for the decision. Some people could be heard sighing with relief or whispering "yes."

Doodnaught was accused of kissing, fondling and performing other sexual acts on patients at North York General Hospital during a four-year period that ended in 2010, leading to a trial that ran, with many adjournments, through most of this year. 

Judge David McCombs of Ontario Superior Court found Doodnaught's guilt on all counts "overwhelming."

Doodnaught’s lawyer argued the female patients were actually having vivid dreams while under sedation, and that it would have been physically impossible for him to molest them from his position behind a surgical screen in the operating room, but the judge rejected those arguments.

A 26-year veteran

McCombs noted Doodnaught had worked at the hospital for 26 years. He knew when it was safe "to commit the relatively brief assaults without being seen," the judge wrote.

"His patients … were sedated, passive and disinhibited," the judge found.

"He had control over their level of anesthesia and would have known that they could not openly resist. He relied on the amnesiac effects of the drugs to shield him from complaints."

He was also known as being "touchy feely," McCombs noted.

Doodnaught Verdict

George Doodnaught was found guilty on all 21 counts of sexually assaulting his patients. (Alex Tavshunsky/CBC)

"His approach, particularly with female patients, was to soothe them by speaking softly to them and often by stroking their cheek or their hair," McCombs wrote.

"Because he was known for his caring approach, [operating room] staff did not consider it unusual for him to be in very close physical proximity to sedated patients under his care."

During the trial, the Crown characterized Doodnaught as a sexual opportunist who timed his assaults with precision to avoid getting caught, claiming he was motivated by the excitement and risk.

'Shocking and abhorrent,' says judge

Most of the 21 victims took the stand against Doodnaught. They gave generally similar accounts of being kissed and fondled by him, and of having his penis placed in their mouths or hands. The women testified they were conscious enough to be aware of what was happening, but could not move their limbs. 

McCombs noted the women did not know each other and were unaware of the particulars of the other patients' stories when they separately came forward.

The sedation no doubt affected the ability of the women to accurately perceive and remember events, McCombs said.

"However, I have found that they were conscious and aware during significant parts of their surgeries, and were able to recall these shocking and abhorrent events."

Dr. George Mashour, an anesthetist who has researched awareness of patients during conscious sedation, testified that the odds are "vanishingly rare" that the drugs administered by Doodnaught caused the patients to believe they were molested. If the drugs were to blame, he testified, he wouldn't expect them all to relate to a single doctor.

Doodnaught is out on bail. He is due back in court on Dec. 13, when the court will set a sentencing date. 

Hospital CEO responds

North York General CEO Tim Rutledge spoke hours after the verdict was reached and said the hospital has taken steps to prevent similar incidents of patient abuse.

"We are troubled by this, we are regretful that this happened," he said. "We are taking steps to ensure this never happens again."

He said changes at the hospital will include new software that tracks patient complaints and matches those that have a similar profile. Also, Rutledge said he will now be made aware of all serious patient complaints.

"It is my hope the verdict in this case will bring some measure of closure."

With files from Canadian Press and CBC's Genevieve Tomney