Charles Duncan never disguised who he was

For women whose trauma began two decades ago, some measure of justice arrived last week on the gavel of a St. Catharines judge. Ex-doctor Charles Duncan is going to jail.

It was an outcome that many of his victims had themselves doubted would happen. First it was a struggle to get the police to take their allegations seriously. Then there were defense attempts to divide and conquer the complainants. Then Covid delays. Finally there was a concerted defense effort to paint Duncan as an enfeebled geriatric, a pitiful figure deserving of no more than confinement at home—after all, his lawyers argued, his sexual crimes were on the “lower end of the spectrum.” Surely reclined in a La-Z-Boy, Netflix on the flatscreen, scotch at hand, would be sufficient punishment.

Justice Deborah Calderwood, who doubtless has presided over enough sex crime trials to put her on the edge of PTSD, called bullshit on that one. Duncan’s oblivious courtroom behaviour, up to and including as Calderwood read out her decision, only reinforced the sentence’s appropriateness. Contemptuous, sneering, scornful. This was a man with seemingly no self-awareness, no empathy for anyone but himself.

After this newspaper broke the story that Duncan’s license to practice medicine was permanently revoked, along with the account of one woman’s allegations of assault, ten more women came forward with strikingly similar stories of misconduct stretching back nearly 20 years. After he was arrested, local chatter really ramped up regarding Duncan’s apparently well known proclivity for sexually tinged jokes and innuendo.

“That’s just the way he was,” argued his supporters. “He was a little out there, but that was his sense of humour.”

Disguising genuine desire behind a facade of humour is about as basic as it gets. “A joke,” goes the adage, “is truth wrapped in a smile.” For decades, Charles Duncan was showing the world exactly who he was. For decades he was safe in assuming he was immune from the consequences.

This tends to be the case with powerful, socially well-connected people—sorry, who are we kidding, it’s men, it’s always men. Powerful, socially well-connected men. As research has shown time and again, the more powerful the abuser the less likely his victims are to speak out.

Let’s take a moment here to remember that Duncan was not charged with making suggestive comments or lewd jokes—though he did that, too. Duncan was charged with sexual assault—that is, unwanted physical conduct perpetrated against vulnerable patients under his care, and against some females who were not his patients.

Particularly infuriating was his assault of a 16-year-old girl, not a patient, not at his practice. These details are subject to a publication ban. On one hand the ban understandably protects the victim from a lifetime of unwanted notoriety—think Monica Lewinsky or Anita Hill. On the other, it’s a pity—it might have opened the eyes of some of those who, incredibly, even at this late hour, still seek to minimize Duncan’s conduct, often asserting that as his patients they received excellent care and were never the target of assaults, meaning that it must all be in the heads of these confused, over-sensitive women. All 12 of them. That we know of.

(Interestingly and to a person, Duncan supporters did not have mothers, wives, daughters, or granddaughters come home shaking after a visit to their family doctor.)

A long list of culprits—from Cosby to Weinstein to Spacey to Jackson to Savile— has conclusively proven to everyone except the willfully ignorant that it is possible for a man to be an accomplished professional as well as a sexual predator simultaneously. Indeed, a sense of invulnerability, of entitlement even, takes root along with that fame and success.

That it took so long for Duncan’s downfall is an indictment of our institutions and culture—a culture that is thankfully now undergoing a sea-change. Yes, after 40-odd years working at his job, the man is elderly, frail, and apparently ill. That’s what’s ahead for most of us. Most of us are not also sexual predators. Delayed prosecution does not lessen Duncan’s crimes, nor lessen the moral imperative that justice be served. For my part, I’m delighted to see these creeps nailed. If karma delivers infirmity and infamy along the way, so much the better. In any case, with good behaviour he’ll likely be out in seven months, maybe even by Christmas. Yet judging by his conduct at trial, Charles Duncan will likely leave incarceration with no more empathy for his victims than he had for them going in.

I’d once again like to thank the women who came forward to us with their experiences, including commenting in this issue about the sentence handed down, as well as the reporters who had a hand in covering this story from day one, especially John Chick and most especially Don Rickers, who spent many an hour connected to Zoom hearings as well as waiting in the courthouse in St. Catharines for the wheels of justice to slowly turn.