As a recent Superior Court of Justice decision makes clear, there is sometimes a wide gap between a teacher being found not guilty versus not liable for sexual abuse or exploitation. In the case of a former teacher Alain Phaneuf, he may have been acquitted of criminal charges for his actions, but his civil liability remains unresolved.
It is apparent from the decision, which was released on January 10, 2023, that Phaneuf gave his personal cellphone number to a female student and soon after began texting her and chatting with her via Skype. He gave her drives to and from her home and to school. The student turned 18 on June 9, 2017.
On June 15, 2017, the student texted Phaneuf. In one text, he asked her if her father had monitored their “more… racy” conversation “the other night.” He also wanted to ensure that her father did not provide the school “anything besides his knowledge of lifts and you coming over.” The student replied that her father may have told the school that Phaneuf had bought her the phone.
In June 2017, Phaneuf admitted to texting with the student on their personal cell phones and providing her rides in his car, violating the school board’s policies. After investigating, the school board suspended Phaneuf for one day without pay. He was also barred from attending the June 16 school graduation.
Sometime after graduating, Phaneuf and the former student began texting again. The texts were found to be “affectionate and sometimes sexual.” He asked the student if she was “still ok exploring that that part of our relationship.” In another, Phaneuf said he would “seriously fuck those blues away for you my love.”
The student met her husband in September 2017. Although she and Phaneuf kept in touch, her communications with him stopped being sexual. In January 2021, the student told B.C. police that she and Phaneuf had had sex in the weeks prior to her 18th birthday and that, at his request, she sent him nude photos. On February 4, 2021, she told Ottawa police.
Being found not guilty versus not liable often turns on nothing more than the standard of proof that must be brought to bear in a proceeding. In a criminal case, the Crown has to prove the case “beyond a reasonable doubt,” which is an extremely high bar to meet. In this case, it wasn’t a lack of evidence of a sexual relationship between Phaneuf and his student that led to his being acquitted but uncertainty as to whether the sex occurred while she was still underage. As Justice Gomery noted in her decision, Phaneuf “may have asked her for nude photographs, and they may have had sex,” but she was not convinced of those facts beyond a reasonable doubt.
In civil cases, however, proof is measured on a balance of probabilities, and a victim of sexual abuse or exploitation does not need to convince the judge of their claims beyond a reasonable doubt. It is enough if the judge accepts their evidence as “more likely than not.”
Given the facts in this case, as found by Justice Gomery, it is possible that Phaneuf could still be held liable for his actions and behaviour even if he has now been acquitted of criminal charges.