Charles Duncan and his partner, named in court as Barbara Vyrostko, depart the St. Catharines courthouse for a lunch break on April 8 2022, not to return. Duncan's lawyer cited a health issue as the reason for his client's absence. DON RICKERS

Disgraced former doctor convicted on all sexual assault charges in January

Former Pelham family physician Charles Duncan was back at the Robert S.K. Welch Courthouse in downtown St. Catharines last Friday before Justice Deborah Calderwood. Oral sentencing submissions were presented by defence counsel Seth Weinstein, and Crown prosecutor Todd Morris.

Duncan was found guilty on January 21 by Justice Calderwood on all six counts of sexual assault under Section 271 of the Criminal Code, in relation to five different complainants.

The charges stemmed from alleged acts committed by Duncan in his medical practice and elsewhere for nearly 20 years.

Duncan, who practiced family medicine in Pelham for decades, resigned from the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario in October 2019, and also gave up his license to practice medicine, after the College commenced an investigation into allegations against him of professional misconduct and incompetence.

After one of the sexual assault victims told her story to the Voice that autumn, several other women came forward with similar allegations. Duncan was formally charged with seven counts of sexual assault and one of sexual exploitation, and was arrested by Niagara Regional Police in November 2019. The women involved were aged 16 to 64 at the time of the incidents.

Her Honour reiterated for the courtroom that a publication ban prohibited the release of any information that could identify the named complainants in the case.

Defense lawyer Weinstein referenced 52 letters of support for Duncan in the court file from former patients, staff, and medical colleagues, which he referred to as a “tidal wave of support,” admitting that they “really paint a Jekyll and Hyde situation for the court” with regard to the former doctor’s character.

One specialist who had a longstanding work relationship with Duncan attested in his letter to Duncan’s commitment to his patients and the medical profession.

Crown prosecutor Morris referenced comments the medical specialist wrote in his letter of support for Duncan, citing “I can imagine how this development will change his life and relations with devastating effects. Considering his services to community, I sincerely wish him peaceful retirement.”

Morris said that the specialist’s comments were “tone-deaf,” failing to appreciate the damage of Duncan’s behaviour.

The issue of “collateral damage” in the aftermath of Duncan’s actions was discussed by both Weinstein and Morris, with Weinstein noting that Duncan’s marriage had dissolved as a consequence. Weinstein told the court that Duncan had a practice of 3000 patients extending over 50 years, involving multi-generational families who spoke in glowing terms of Duncan’s skills and dedication as a family doctor who even made house-calls on occasion.

Duncan had no prior criminal record, and had an unblemished record with the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario. He was described by the defense as a man devoted to his family, and despite the charges has their support.

Weinstein argued that a Conditional Sentence Order (CSO) was appropriate in Duncan’s case, and recommended 18 months of non-custodial house arrest. (A CSO refers to incarceration which is permitted to be served in the community under strict conditions, typically consisting of house arrest, for up to two years less a day.)

These victims went to their doctor, thinking it was a safe space

His lawyer suggested that Duncan’s crimes were on “the lower end of the spectrum” with regard to sexual assault, and insisted that Duncan’s age (he will be 79 in July) and poor health (he has asserted diagnoses of leukemia and prostate cancer, and is receiving treatment for both) deserve consideration. Weinstein said that Duncan’s “immune-deficient state” would make him vulnerable in a prison setting.

This position was contested by Morris, who insisted that a period of “bricks and mortar” real jail time of two to four years was a more fitting sentence, with three years “striking the right balance.”

Morris noted that the crimes represented a significant breach of trust, involved multiple victims over a protracted time period spanning several years. He sought a sentence “proportional to the gravity of the offense.”

“These victims went to their doctor, thinking it was a safe space,” said Morris.

Three victim impact statements were entered into the court file. One of the complainants appeared in person to provide her own emotional account before Calderwood. The young woman, who was 16 at the time of the incident with Duncan, recounted the traumatic effect of the experience on her well-being, and said that the assault triggered a severe decline in her mental health, for which she is still receiving regular therapy.

“He preyed on me…what a terrible weight to be placed upon an innocent child,” she read from her prepared statement. “My honesty and integrity were questioned…I felt like I was the one on trial. I still carry the shame of what he did to me. I feel lonely and isolated, broken and unlovable. Charles must be held accountable for the pain he has caused.”

In prior testimony, Duncan had referred to his interaction with the girl as “unremarkable,” and described her as “psychologically vulnerable.”

“How dare he! I trusted him,” she said, fighting for composure. “He knew that I was struggling, and he took advantage of me when I was vulnerable.”

After a lunch break, Duncan did not return to the courtroom, citing a health issue.

The matter will reconvene on April 19, at which time defence counsel will complete their oral sentencing submission.