Trauma retreat for military sex assault survivors used sex offender as 'peer mentor'

Some Canadian Armed Forces veterans and first responders who are sexual assault survivors said they were outraged to learn their peer mentor at a women’s trauma retreat was himself a registered sex offender.

Participants say doctor in charge of program did not disclose peer mentor’s criminal convictions

‘I’m still hurting,’ retired corporal says after experience at trauma retreat

2 years ago
Duration 3:43
Tina Sharp describes her experience at Project Trauma Support and why she left the program feeling suicidal.

Warning: The following story contains graphic details some readers may find disturbing

Some Canadian Armed Forces veterans and first responders who are sexual assault survivors said they were outraged to learn their peer mentor at a women's trauma retreat was himself a registered sex offender.

Project Trauma Support is a residential treatment program. Its medical director is Dr. Manuela Joannou, a family physician and ER doctor in Perth, Ontario. The program works with military personnel, veterans and first responders who've experienced post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and operational stress injury through outdoor group exercises. Some participants have credited the program with saving their lives.

Seven female participants who attended one of the six-day retreats in early July 2018 said the program failed to warn them that one of their peer mentors — retired army major Jonathan Hamilton, who came home with PTSD from multiple deployments to Afghanistan — had a history of sexual assault.

They said the program put Hamilton's health and safety ahead of the needs of 12 women traumatized by sexual assault.

"I drove away from the program suicidal," said retired Canadian Forces corporal Tina Sharp. "I wasn't in a good place for a very long time."

Sharp is a former medic with PTSD. She said Joannou failed to tell the group that Hamilton had been convicted recently of four counts of sexual assault in two separate court cases.

"I'm filled with deep anger," she said. "In the process of trying to heal from my military sexual trauma, I was exposed to a sex offender who had already re-offended ... He heard me talk about some of my sexual trauma."

Krissy Johnson and her health care provider complained to the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario after Dr. Manuela Joannou chose a convicted sex offender as a peer mentor for a group of women who had experienced sexual trauma. (Mathieu Theriault/CBC News)

Sharp said she searched Hamilton's name online during the retreat and learned that he had been added to the sex offender registry for life in 2017. She said she confronted Joannou and asked her if she had done a criminal record check on Hamilton.

Sharp said that Joannou urged her not to believe everything she read, suggested Hamilton was falsely accused and said he deserved compassion too.

"She asked me not to tell anyone," said Sharp. "I didn't know what to do at that point. I've been taught that we trust, but I trust medical professionals. I was questioning my own sanity.

"[Hamilton] probably did deserve some care, probably still does deserve some care. But it was the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong people."

Multiple retreat participants contacted CBC News. Many said they only learned the full extent of Hamilton's criminal history after reading a recent CBC News story about one of his court cases. CBC News spoke to several retreat participants who wanted to share their stories because of what they believe was a violation of trust.

Participants want more oversight for program

Marie-Julie Cosenzo, a Quebec paramedic with PTSD who took part in the retreat, said she had to get professional help last week because she couldn't sleep and was having nightmares about being kidnapped and assaulted.

"I am hurt that [Joannou] decided to shield us from the truth, judging that we were safe from a sex offender," said Cosenzo. "We were a group of 12 women, raw, vulnerable, battling a variety of demons …"

In an email sent May 5, Cosenzo asked Joannou why she let Hamilton into the program. In her reply, Joannou said that she couldn't say much because of confidentiality considerations but assured Cosenzo that "no one was ever at risk."

"Not even close," Joannou wrote in a May 5 email, viewed by CBC News. "Jon was very open about what happened and what he was going through. There is no news. This is all old. I'm so sorry you have been negatively impacted by what is being discussed in the media. There is so much drama, that helps no one."

Female participants in Project Trauma Support in Perth, Ont. take part in a group hug at the centre of a labyrinth. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

In a letter to CBC News, Joannou and retired Brig. Gen Paul Rutherford, chair of the Project Trauma Support board, said that it asks program participants not to share details of the work.

"The safety and well-being of our participants and alumni is our first priority," they wrote. "We maintain regular and open communication with our alumni and are available to address any alumni concerns directly at any time.

"The truth cannot be realized by listening to one side of the story. A prerequisite for reconciliation is compassion ... For any who have been harmed by sexual trauma, we hear you. We know how painful this is. We will devote our efforts to learning more so that we can better support you."

Many of the women who spoke to CBC News said the program itself is valuable — but they question Joannou's judgment and want more oversight and accountability from the organizations funding the program.

The Mood Disorder Society of Canada, the True Patriot Love Foundation and the Royal Canadian Legion are among the organizations that have given hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in funding to Project Trauma Support, a registered charity.

College of Physicians and Surgeons investigates

The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO) investigated a complaint about Hamilton's participation in the program. According to a 2019 CPSO report viewed by CBC News, Joannou was aware of his criminal conviction, which was under appeal at the time.

Joannou told the CPSO she had permission from the Crown attorney's office and the court to allow Hamilton to participate in Project Trauma Support, according to the report. Joannou also said she put safeguards in place — including a male peer mentor with a policing background supervising Hamilton at all times — and that he did not stay overnight at the property where the women stayed, the report said.

Dr. Manuela Joannou announced on Saturday that she has stepped down as medical director of Project Trauma Support. The residential treatment program works with military personnel, veterans and first responders who've experienced post traumatic stress disorder and operational stress injury through outdoor group exercises. (Laura Osman, CBC News)

The committee reported that Joannou did not show appropriate judgment in this case and advised her to be mindful of her hiring practices in the future.

"Ultimately, the Committee is of the view that it was inappropriate to have someone with [Hamilton's] history at this particular (female) cohort, given his background of conviction as a male sex offender," says the Dec. 12, 2019 report.

The CPSO said Joannou did not not expose her patients to undue risk and, since she did not have a significant history with the college, she was not disciplined.

Joannou told the CPSO Hamilton took part in other Project Trauma Support groups with men before and after the women's retreat, the document said.

Hamilton sentenced to jail time a month before retreat 

In 2017, a justice found Hamilton guilty of unlawfully entering a Kingston home and sexually assaulting retired Capt. Annalise Schamuhn on two different occasions. Hamilton also was convicted of twice physically assaulting Schamuhn's husband, retired major Kevin Schamuhn.

Hamilton was sentenced to three years parole as a result, according to the attorney general's office.

In a second, unrelated case, Hamilton was sentenced to three years in custody on April 20, 2018 after a jury found him guilty of two counts of sexual assault.

Both cases were under appeal at the time of the retreat. One of Hamilton's appeals was later dismissed and the other was abandoned in 2020, according to court documents.

The Correctional Service of Canada confirms Hamilton is under its jurisdiction but won't say if he's incarcerated or being supervised in the community, citing privacy reasons. He was eligible for full parole in the fall of 2020 and his sentence is expected to be complete in February 2022.

Hamilton's lawyer told CBC News he and his client would not offer a comment for this story.

A 'cloak and dagger surprise'

Retired Armed Forces master corporal Tara Kochie took part in the retreat. She said she was in a "very dark" place at the time and never would have attended the program had she known a convicted sex offender was there.

Kochie said the experience was a betrayal — and it still comes up regularly during her therapy sessions.

Retired Master Corporal Tara Kochie said she served 13 years as a supply technician and retired in 2016 diagnosed with PTSD. (Submitted)

"I already had such strong distrust and disdain for the medical field coming out of the military," she said. "I wasn't handled with love and care. And that's what I went to Manuela for, love and care, not some cloak-and-dagger surprise.

"She chose one man over [12] women. She needs to apologized to us and explain why she made that decision."

'She violated our trust'

Krissy Johnston, a volunteer firefighter on sick leave with PTSD, said she left Project Trauma Support after the first day because Joannou didn't check on her when she was having suicidal thoughts.

Johnston said that after she learned about Hamilton's criminal past, she and her psychoanalyst filed a complaint to CPSO about Hamilton and a number of other issues related to her care.

WATCH / Firefighter Krissy Johnston on Project Trauma:

‘I feel kind of violated’ — first responder talks about Project Trauma Support

2 years ago
Duration 2:02
Krissy Johnston talks about her experience at Project Trauma Support and why she says she left the program.

"[Joannou] violated our trust and I can't really trust anymore," said Johnston. "For months, I basically locked myself in my house. I wouldn't go anywhere. I was always looking over my shoulder and it just threw my anxiety sideways again."

Julie Lalonde, a public educator and women rights advocate, said CPSO should have taken further action after learning about what she calls a "deplorable" case.

"I've worked in this sector for almost 20 years," said Lalonde. "I don't know a single professional mental health worker who would have approved this decision, let alone endorsed it and doubled down and maintained the decision was appropriate."

The CPSO said in a media statement that the safety of patients is always its primary concern.

Lalonde is now calling for Project Trauma Support to be put on hold until the agencies funding it conduct an in-depth review.

"I know in my sector, if a decision like this happened, we absolutely would have our funding put into question," she said. "We would absolutely have the public asking questions. And the same should happen here."

Some donors now cancelling funding 

True Patriot Love said it learned about Hamilton's involvement in the program in 2019 and froze funding for Project Trauma Support pending an investigation. In April 2020, following a third-party review, True Patriot Love resumed funding but decreased the amount from $76,000 in 2018 to $25,000 in 2020.

The organization said Project Trauma Support assured it that it would pay closer attention to hiring practices, governance and oversight. True Patriot Love said it is treating this matter "extremely seriously and regards the safety of everyone who serves, or has served, in the Canadian Armed Forces as an absolute priority."

The office of Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay told CBC News that between 2018 and 2021, it provided hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Mood Disorder Society of Canada, which was passed onto Project Trauma Support. That funding ended on March 31.

The office said Veterans Affairs is not funding Project Trauma Support and it "will not receive any future support."

"It is absolutely unacceptable that the organization allowed this individual to serve as a peer mentor to veterans and first responders with PTSD," wrote the minister's press secretary Cameron McNeill in a media statement.

The Mood Disorder Society of Canada (MDSC) said it was "shocked" to learn about the case and has now severed ties. 

The organization's national executive director, Dave Gallson, said he alerted Project Trauma Support yesterday in writing that it "would sever all working relationship with the program immediately." The organization said it donated almost $250,000 per fiscal year and has paid for 96 veterans to attend the program. The MDSC also sent $40,000 per fiscal year to the University of Alberta to research the program's effectiveness.

"Your email yesterday offered me my real first concrete written details of what has transpired," wrote Gallson. "I can assure you, this is taking us completely by surprise and it is very unsettling to myself and our organization."

The Royal Canadian Legion said it committed $300,000 to Project Trauma Support over three years. A Legion spokesperson told CBC News Tuesday evening that it will no longer fund the program.

"The Royal Canadian Legion was astounded today to learn previously unknown and distressing details about this situation and how it was managed by PTS leadership," said spokesperson Nujma Bond in an email to CBC News.

"Given the new information, the Legion will no longer consider future funding for PTS. We remain committed to supporting veterans living with operational stress injuries only through programs that are both well-led and effective."

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Ashley Burke

Senior reporter

Ashley Burke is a senior reporter with the CBC's Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa who focuses on enterprise journalism for television, radio and digital platforms. She was recognized with the Charles Lynch Award and was a finalist for the Michener Award for her exclusive reporting on the toxic workplace at Rideau Hall. She has also uncovered rampant allegations of sexual misconduct in the Canadian military involving senior leaders. You can reach her confidentially by email: ashley.burke@cbc.ca or https://www.cbc.ca/securedrop/