Former Students Sue Disgraced Professor Rick Despatie and Board of Trustees for $220 Million

The lawsuit was filed Dec. 15 in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice by lawyers for two young women, while the proposed class-action lawsuit would include “all students” of St. Matthew who were allegedly sexually assaulted between Jan. 1 1989 and April 30. , 2021.

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Two young women who were seventh grade students of disgraced former teacher Rick Despatie have launched a $220 million lawsuit against Despatie and the Ottawa Catholic School Board, alleging that school officials failed to report “prolonged, intrusive and exploitative” mistreatment ” from Despatie to the students under his care. .

Despatie, also known as Rick Watkins, a former teacher at St. Matthew Catholic High School in Orleans, received a two-year sentence in January after being found guilty of four counts each of sexual assault and sexual interference, two counts of criminal harassment and one count of sexual exploitation.

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Despatie, 60, is currently free on bail while he appeals his conviction and, according to his defense statement, plans to represent himself in the pending civil suit.

The lawsuit was filed Dec. 15 in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice by lawyers representing the women, identified only as Jane Doe 1 and Jane Doe 2, while the proposed class-action lawsuit would include “all students” of St Matthew who were allegedly sexually assaulted by Despatie between January 1, 1989 and April 30, 2021.

Ottawa Catholic School Board
The Ottawa Catholic School Board filed a notice of intent to defend the lawsuit in court in January. School board officials declined to comment on the case. Photo by Jean Levac /postmedia

The Ottawa Catholic School Board is named as a defendant in the lawsuit, which alleges the board failed to investigate numerous complaints about Despatie and failed to preserve documents essential to the legal case.

Despatie worked as a teacher for approximately 32 years before his arrest and was an OCSB employee at all relevant times. The lawsuit claims that OCSB is “vicariously liable” for Despatie’s misconduct toward his students, sexual assaults and other unlawful conduct.

The OCSB received “numerous complaints and concerns about Despatie, but failed or refused to investigate,” the lawsuit alleges, while St. Matthew School officials “actively and aggressively downplayed, diminished and dismissed” those complaints.

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School officials “had the best opportunity to investigate the complaints about Despatie, but failed to conduct any investigation or take action to determine whether the complaints were well-founded,” the lawsuit alleges.

The lawsuit further claims that OCSB failed to preserve or maintain “crucial” documents, emails, records and other evidence from prior complaints and reports about Despatie’s misconduct.

“This failure constitutes a stripping of evidence, which has materially impacted the ability to seek justice and accountability in this matter,” the statement of claim says.

The lawsuit claims that OCSB had “relevant documents… emails, internal communications, misconduct reports, and investigative files regarding prior complaints about Despatie, and these documents were destroyed or not properly preserved.

“The absence of these documents significantly impedes the ability to establish a comprehensive understanding of the extent of the board’s knowledge of and response to the allegations against Despatie, which is essential to this legal proceeding.”

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Lawyers for the Catholic board filed a notice of intent to defend the lawsuit in January. School board officials declined to comment on the case.

“When it comes to legal claims involving the school board, established procedures are followed, which includes the Ontario School Boards Insurance Exchange (OSBIE) providing specialized legal counsel to oversee and manage the legal proceedings,” they stated. this week board officials.

Despatie denied the allegations, calling them “egregious and vexatious” in a brief defense statement filed in December.

“As a defendant, I intend to defend this claim in due course,” Despatie said. “My intention is to represent myself as I do not have the means to hire legal representation.”

Despatie said references to the two plaintiffs “are unclear… and as such, I am unable to decipher who (the lawsuit) refers to.”

The lawsuit details several “inappropriate and non-consensual interactions” between Despatie and seventh-grade girls in 2014 and 2016.

The first complainant said she was “isolated from her classmates” by Despatie at the beginning of the 2016 school year, who “subjected her to intimate one-on-one conversations…inappropriately touched her thighs, breasts and neck…massaged her shoulders and touched her The clavicle”. of her under her shirt” and she made inappropriate sexual comments.

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The second complainant reported unwanted and non-consensual touching in 2014, stating that Despatie touched her thighs, breasts and neck and made sexual comments in front of her classmates in her math class.

Students reported the teacher’s conduct to St. Matthew’s administrators, including then-assistant principal John Purificati and principal Debbie Clark. Both school officials are identified in the lawsuit, although neither is named as a defendant.

The lawsuit alleges that administrators “failed to conduct an investigation or report complaints to the school board or police” and turned a blind eye to complaints against Despatie due, in part, to the “close personal relationship” he enjoyed with school officials.

Purificati testified during Despatie’s criminal trial that she had never received any complaints about inappropriate touching from Despatie, who was also a longtime women’s basketball coach.

During the trial, Purificati described Despatie as a dedicated professional and “a good man.”

Complaints against the teacher generally related to his tough attitude in the classroom, Purificati testified.

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The lawsuit seeks $50 million in damages against Despatie for sexual assault, breach of fiduciary duty, breach of trust, breach of trust and negligence, $25 million in aggravated damages and $25 million in punitive and exemplary damages.

The lawsuit seeks additional damages of $10 million against Despatie for lost wages, loss of earning capacity and the costs of future care and therapy for the former students that are yet to be determined.

The plaintiffs also seek a declaration from the court that Despatie owed his students “a duty of care, a fiduciary duty, and a statutory duty of care, and that he breached these duties by inappropriately touching, fondling, and sexually assaulting” the plaintiffs. . .

The lawsuit seeks appropriate damages against the OCSB, asserting that damages would be “justified against the (OCSB) in its own right, given its actual or constructive knowledge of the risk of harm and injury that Despatie presented to Jane Doe 1 and Jane Doe 2 and the Student Class, the board’s complicity and/or willful blindness toward Despatie’s continued wrongdoings, and its inability to prevent and/or mitigate the effects of these wrongdoings through investigations, interventions and/or appropriate and timely support.

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The allegations against OCSB contained in the statement of claim have not been proven in court.

The lawsuit also details several encounters Despatie had with other students, who are included as potential members of the proposed class action.

The lawsuit alleges that Despatie “looked at and ogled the students, including at their chest, buttocks and legs…inappropriately touched or caressed (the students’) shoulders, neck and thighs” and ordered the girls to They would sit on his lap.

He allegedly placed his hands under the girls’ clothing and “unexpectedly entered female locker rooms and bathrooms for his sexual gratification.”

Those allegations have not been proven in court.

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