An update on former McMaster professor Scott Watter’s sexual assault trial
The Silhouette provides background information on Scott Watter’s sexual assault allegations and an update for the October 19 trial
cw: sexual harassment, sexual assault, grooming, depictions of mental illness, substance abuse and self-harm
This article serves as an update piece to our previous coverage of the former McMaster University associate professor Scott Watter case. The content within this article may be upsetting or triggering as it deals with sexual harassment, sexual assault, grooming, depictions of mental illness, substance abuse and self-harm. For a list of resources, please see the bottom of the article.
In February 2020, Scott Watter, an associate professor in the department of psychology, neuroscience and behaviour, was placed on nondisciplinary leave of absence without loss of pay and barred from campus following allegations of breaches of McMaster’s sexual violence policy.
On June 18, 2020, Watter was arrested on charges of sexual assault and sexual assault causing bodily harm for incidents in 2017 involving a female student.
From late July to late September 2020, six new allegations of sexual violence policy breaches surfaced, involving three PNB department faculty members, a graduate student and two staff members.
On Nov. 26, 2020, the university released a 15-page summary report of a five-month-long systemic review of the PNB department conducted by Toronto law firm Rubin Thomlinson LLP. According to the report, some students described the culture of the department as friendly and social, while others expressed noticing a lack of boundaries between students and faculty. Some survey participants also expressed that this lack of boundaries allowed faculty to engage in sexually inappropriate behaviours.
The report alleged that more than 25 individuals described hearing or witnessing behaviour that could have been characterized as sexual harassment. Further, the report found that some participants who tried to address these concerns felt continually dismissed by the PNB department. The university did not release the full 74-page report, citing solicitor-client privilege.
The victim publicly recounted her history with Watter in a Hamilton Spectator exclusive interview in May 2021, addressing that she hoped that she would get justice from the university, but no further actions had been taken at the time.
She described meeting Watter when she was an undergrad student in a second-year course, where he had the reputation of a “cool prof” that would drink with students and have them over for dinners. She described their relationship as strictly professional until 2014 when she started dating an older grad student. The victim and her girlfriend developed a close relationship with Watter and his wife, participating in dinner and board games night at Watter’s house once or twice a month.
She alleged that in April 2017, Watter kissed her without her consent and then made further sexual advances. In May 2017, after a dinner and board games night, she alleged that he offered to walk her home because she was drunk and then sexually assaulted her.
She recounted instances of self-harm throughout the weeks and months after the sexual assault as her mental health deteriorated. She alleged Watter encouraged her cutting and asked for pictures. The victim also alleged that Watter sexually assaulted her after an act of self-harm.
She described how her mental health deteriorated and led to a leave of absence in June. During this time, she would text Watter for support. She recounted her dependence on Watter during this time as due to his manipulation and reassurances towards her.
She described two other alleged sexual assaults in the summer and fall of 2017. She alleged multiple times throughout the interviews with the Spectator that she did not consent to any sexual activity with Watter.
In the following years, she avoided Watter on McMaster campus and tried to put the alleged sexual assault and grooming instances behind her. However, in early 2020, she was connected to a female former PNB grad student who told the victim that she was allegedly sexually assaulted and harassed by Watter as well. This prompted the victim to come forward with her story to the university.
The former student also informed the university of her story and filed a civil suit against McMaster.
In June 2021, the university claimed to find only one sexual violence policy violation after investigating the multiple allegations in 2020. During the same month, the university confirmed that Watter violated the sexual violence policy, the discrimination and harassment policy and McMaster’s faculty code of conduct. The university was recommended to dismiss the former professor, based on an investigation decision letter. As of article publication, Scott Watter remains on paid administrative leave and made $169,577 in 2021.
Watter pled not guilty to two charges of sexual assault on Aug. 12, 2021. During the judge-only trials, in front of Justice Amanda Camara, that began on May 18, 2022, the victim testified that Watter had allegedly sexually assaulted her on multiple occasions while she was not sober. She also testified to the Crown that she had not consented to any physical contact with Watter.
On May 19, the defence questioned the accuracy of the victim’s memory. The victim testified that she went to The Spectator after she was displeased with the university’s investigation process. Additionally, she stated that she planned on coming forward after she finished her PhD and left the university. However, she decided to come forward earlier due to another student sharing similar experiences about Watter with the victim.
On May 20, the defence continued to question the victim’s memory. They alleged that she had unreliable and inaccurate memories of the events due to discrepancies between transcripts from police interviews and the interviews with the Spectator. They also suggested that she initiated the kiss in the April 2017 incident.
On June 13, the defence suggested that the victim was interested in an intimate relationship with Watter after the April 2017 incident, based on texts between the two. The victim testified that she was confused about her relationship with Watter, claiming that she had a dual relationship with him not only as a mentor and friend but also as the man who sexually assaulted her.
According to the Spectator coverage of the July 26 and 28 trial, the defence suggested that the victim was trying to reconstruct past events to justify texts between herself and Watter. According to the defence, the texts appeared to show that both parties had similar views about their relationship and consented to intimate activities. The victim claimed that she would agree or joke with Watter as a defence mechanism and made clear to the judge that she was mentally ill and had an extreme drinking problem at the time as well. She added that she did not want to lose Watter’s support during her mental health crisis as well.
October 19 Trial Update
Assistant Crown attorney Nancy Flynn argued that the victim stated she did not give any consent for each sexual assault incident and. Flynn further argued that if the court found otherwise, there were factors that prevented her from giving consent, such as the victim’s extreme intoxication, significant mental health crises and relationship with Watter as an authority figure.
Flynn alleged that Watter abused his position of authority in the student-teacher relationship between the victim and Watter. Further, Flynn highlighted that Watter had power over the victim’s source of income, as he had control over her teaching assistant assignment and was also paying her to teach piano to his son. Watter was also teaching a required course in her PhD program.
Additionally, she argued that Watter would act as an informal therapist to the victim during her mental health crises, which provided further evidence about the position of trust and authority he had with her.
“The accused used the vulnerability of [the victim’s] mental health crisis and extreme intoxications to his advantage to induce her consent for sexual activity,” said Flynn.
She alleged that Watter encouraged the state of mind she was in during her mental health conditions.
In rebuttal to the defence’s argument that past texts indicated a consensual relationship, Flynn argued that texts were irrelevant to consider at the time, since consent is specific to the duration of the incidents.
The defence described how the victim lacked credibility due to contradictions between the testimony provided in court, the interview with the Spectator and their police testimony. Flynn argued against the defence’s questioning of the victim’s credibility. She stated that the victim was credible and reliable based on her consistency in testimony, accuracy of evidence and the lack of an ulterior motive. She also claimed there were multiple pieces of evidence that backed claims where she was not able to recall the entire incident.
Flynn argued that gaps in memory due to intoxication do not diminish the reliability of evidence provided, especially if there are text messages and photos to verify the victim’s account of events.
The trial judgement will resume on Dec. 15, 2022.
This is an ongoing story.
If you are a survivor of sexual violence and need support, please see the following McMaster and Hamilton resources:
Sexual Violence Intake Offices
- McMaster University Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Office
- Human Rights and Dispute Resolution
- Faculty of Health Sciences Professionalism Office
- Student Case Management
Sexual Violent Supports
- McMaster University Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Office
- Sexual Assault Centre Hamilton and Area (SACHA)
- Phone (24/7): 905-525-4162
- Text (Mon, Thu, Sun 4pm-12am EST; Fri 8am-12pm EST): 289-207-7790
- Chat (Mon, Thu, Sun 4pm-12am EST; Fri 8am-12pm EST): https://www.sacha.ca
- MSU Women & Gender Equity Network (WGEN)