British Columbia

Sex assault victim feels blamed for fire chief's conviction

A former volunteer firefighter says she's facing backlash after speaking out and helping convict a small town fire chief accused of sexual harassment and sexual assault.

Small town whisper campaign follows fire chief's conviction

Former volunteer firefighter Kirsten Rudolph says she's still the target of a small town whisper campaign, after her testimony helped convict the former fire chief of sexually assaulting her and two others. (CBC )

A former volunteer firefighter who was sexually assaulted on the job says she's facing hostility from supporters of  the fire chief convicted of the crime. 

In 2015, a Supreme Court judge sentenced Robert Bennett to nine months jail time and two years probation for sex assaults on three female volunteer firefighters in Fort St. James, B.C..  Bennett is appealing the conviction. 

Kirsten Rudolph served as a volunteer firefighter under Bennett, and was one of his victims. Even after his conviction, Rudolph says the disgraced fire chief remains popular in their small town of 1,500 people. But his victims, she says, are now the targets of a whisper campaign. 

"There's still a lot of people who are angry with us, even though he has been convicted of three counts of criminal sexual assault," Rudolph told CBC radio's Daybreak North.

"Go away and die"

Rudolph says she's had quiet support from many people in town. But not everyone.

"In the grocery store, his supporters will stand just close enough and talk loud just enough and say, ['Those women] were all lying. They should go to jail for false accusations. How could they do this to such a great guy?' 

"There's been some people who have even alluded to the fact maybe I should go away and die or someone should kill me," she said.

"This is the type of thing we're dealing with in Fort St. James," said Rudolph. "They think we are the bad guys. They're convinced he's been wrongly convicted despite the overwhelming evidence presented in Supreme Court."

Rudolph said the former chief's conduct was especially inappropriate in a fire hall devoted to saving lives. "You know you've got some guy who's grabbing your butt or asking you to go have sex with him in the office. When your life depends on trust, and there are people you can't trust, it makes life very difficult."

Rudolph fears other victims of sexual harassment will see how she's now being treated and keep silent. "They're not going to want to put themselves through that and I don't blame them." 

She says an apology from Fort St. James would signal that these were serious incidents that should never have happened.

'Where was our apology?'

"Where was our apology for this? We never got one. You know what? It is about time," said Rudolph.  

The District of Fort St. James declined to comment, because the matter is still before the courts.

Bennett's appeal has not yet been heard.

Rudolph and the other two firefighters have also launched a civil lawsuit against Bennett and the District of Fort St. James.