British Columbia

B.C. physiotherapist who sexually assaulted 9 women will serve sentence in the community

A former physiotherapist from B.C.’s Okanagan will serve an 18-month conditional sentence after admitting to sexually assaulting nine female patients.

Stephen Witvoet handed 18-month conditional sentence, including 6 months of house arrest

Stephen Witvoet pleaded guilty last year to nine counts of sexual assault. (Vernon North Okanagan RCMP)

A former physiotherapist from B.C.'s Okanagan region will serve an 18-month conditional sentence after admitting to sexually assaulting nine female patients.

Stephen Witvoet, 48, pleaded guilty mid-trial last year to nine counts of sexual assault for massaging women's breasts and vaginal areas without their consent, according to Wednesday's sentencing decision from provincial court Judge Jeremy Guild.

"The victims went to see Mr. Witvoet for pain relief. They trusted him. He abused that trust," Guild wrote.

Witvoet's sentence includes six months of house arrest as well as two years of probation after his time is served.

The women Witvoet assaulted ranged in age from 18 to 53 years old, and they'd gone to his Thrive Physiotherapy clinic in Vernon for treatment of everything from flat feet to shoulder injuries.

According to the judge's decision, police first learned about Witvoet's misconduct in 2015, when a woman reported that he had massaged both of her breasts without her consent. She told RCMP she didn't want to proceed with charges at that time, but officers spoke to Witvoet about his behaviour.

"He had been warned by police about the first reported incident, yet offended after that," Guild wrote.

Prosecutors approved charges against Witvoet after a second woman reported a similar complaint in 2016. The charges snowballed in 2019 when police made a public request for more victims to come forward — ultimately, Witvoet was charged with 16 criminal counts.

'Embarrassment, shame, guilt'

Three of Witvoet's victims filed victim impact statements with the court. They said they suffered emotional, physical and financial hardships as a result of what happened.

"Impacts included embarrassment, shame, guilt, depression, panic attacks, loss of ability to concentrate and function at work, decreased trust in others, fear for other family members, fear of treatment from professionals, difficulties in relationships with family and friends, attending counselling and psychiatrists, loss of employment, headaches and muscle pain from stress and anxiety, and feeling like they were mere sexual objects, rather than patients," Guild wrote.

Witvoet's guilty pleas were the result of "extensive discussions" between his defence lawyer and the Crown, according to the judge, and the two sides made a joint submission recommending  the 18-month conditional sentence.

Witvoet does not have a previous criminal record, which Guild described as "demonstrative of a generally good character," despite the number of assaults he committed.

"Clearly, his character is flawed, having committed so many offences over a significant time span, some after having been warned about his conduct. But he recognizes that," the judge wrote.

The College of Physical Therapists of B.C. cancelled Witvoet's licence in March and reprimanded him. He's agreed not to apply for a new licence for four years, and if he decides to reapply, it would be on the understanding that he would never again be allowed to treat female patients or work without a supervisor.

According to the sentencing decision, Witvoet has been working in construction to make ends meet.