By Grant Fleming
STRATFORD, ONTARIO – A priest who describes himself as a “listening ear” for a junior hockey team caught in a scandal wants to reach out to a young woman who was raped by one of the players.
Daniel Bowyer is an Anglican priest based in Stratford. In an interview on Monday, Bowyer said he was “really, really sad” when he learned about the sexual predations of Mitch Vandergunst, a player for the Stratford Cullitons.
In July 2013, Vandergunst, of Exeter, Ontario, was arrested and charged with two counts of sexually assaulting a young woman in South Huron, Ontario.
The victim’s identity is protected by a judge-imposed publication ban.
On October 3, 2014, Vandergunst, who was 18 years old at the time of the sexual assaults, was convicted on both counts. The judge described Vandergunst’s crime as “predatory in nature.”
On February 4th of this year, Vandergunst was sentenced to one year in jail plus two years of parole. He’s appealing the decision.
Despite his criminal proceedings, Vandergunst remained with the hockey team for two seasons, including for four months following his conviction. He was officially dismissed from the team this year, on February 5th, one day after he was sentenced to a year in jail. He is out on bail pending an appeal.
The head coach and director of operations, Phil Westman, was forced to resign from the Cullitons the same day Vandergunst was kicked off the team.
Bowyer said he believes the person solely responsible is the rapist, Vandergunst. He described Westman’s decision not to tell club officials about Vandergunst’s sex offenses as “an error in judgement.”
The team’s president, Dan Mathieson, told reporters in early February that none of the board members, including him, knew about Vandergunst’s criminal case. Mathieson said Westman didn’t think he could tell anyone because of the court-ordered publication ban.
Mathieson, who told this reporter last week that “the buck stops with me,” says he plans to stay on in his role as team president. He is also the mayor of Stratford.
The ex-coach, Westman, has said little about the Vandergunst scandal, including when he knew about the player and whether he went to the team’s board. Last week, he told this reporter, “I got put in a very, very bad position.” He refused to elaborate.
Bowyer said the Cullitons’ board appointed him as the team’s chaplain on January 26th of this year. He didn’t know Vandergunst was a convicted sex offender until early February.
When asked if he believed anyone else knew, including players, assistant coaches, board officials and parents, Bowyer said “no.”
The priest then added, “I think if anyone had known about this most unfortunate event, they ought to have made it known.”
Bowyer said if he’d learned about Vandergunst’s criminal background, he would have acted.
“If I had known, I probably would have talked first to the player about making those things known (to club officials), and offered to go with the player,” Bowyer said.
Bowyer said he didn’t know Vandergunst prior to his conviction, and hasn’t spoken with him since he was sentenced to jail.
A native of Lambeth, Ontario, Bowyer has been an Anglican priest for nine years. He moved to Stratford a year ago. He said he knows only a few of the people associated with the team.
Bowyer knows of only one club official, a board member with the Cullitons, who attends his church. He said that person has never approached him to talk about the team scandal.
The priest said he prays for the victim and her family. He said he prays for Vandergunst, too.
In an interview this week, the father of the victim said no official from the Cullitons has been in touch to offer an apology.
Bowyer hasn’t contacted the family but “it has crossed my mind.”
“If I were given contact details for the family, I think I might,” Bowyer said.
Bowyer said he thinks Mathieson and other club officials have taken the right approach by offering sensitivity training to the team. He said he attended a workshop recently to learn about the laws dealing with consent.
Bowyer said the presentation did not include any instruction on how to report someone like Vandergunst.
Bowyer said the other people at the workshop included players and one coach. He said no board members, assistant coaches or parents were present.