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OTTAWA -- A Manitoba judge whose comments about a sexual assault victim implied she was partly to blame for her attack has been scolded by the Canadian Judicial Council for conduct unbecoming of someone sitting on the federal bench.

But Justice Robert Dewar will keep his job because it was determined to be an isolated incident and he has accepted he was wrong and apologized, said Neil Wittmann, CJC judicial conduct committee vice-chairman.

Justice Robert Dewar

Justice Robert Dewar

The CJC, which oversees the conduct of all federally appointed judges, asked Wittmann to review the case after numerous complaints were made about Dewar's comments last February. The Manitoba government was one of the complainants.

In a sentencing hearing for Kenneth Rhodes, Dewar suggested the victim's attire and flirtatious behaviour were partly to blame for the attack, which involved forced intercourse.

Rhodes was convicted of sexual assault. However, in sentencing, Dewar said Rhodes was not as morally culpable as other rapists because of "misunderstood signals and inconsiderate behaviour." Dewar noted the victim was wearing a tube top without a bra, high heels and plenty of makeup, had discussed going swimming in a lake despite not having a bathing suit and had sent signals that "sex was in the air."

He called Rhodes a "clumsy Don Juan" and said those factors could not be considered during the trial but could be at sentencing. He issued a conditional sentence rather than the three-year jail term the Crown sought.

Dewar's comments set off a firestorm of responses, mainly by people who believed he was reverting to stereotypes of women who dress provocatively, inviting rape. There were numerous protests and rallies calling for Dewar's resignation last winter.

In a statement Wednesday, Wittmann said he was of the view Dewar's remarks showed a clear lack of sensitivity toward victims of sexual assault and fell short of the high standard Canadians expect of all judges.

In the release from the CJC, Dewar apologized for his comments and said he wished to "express my unequivocal apology to (the victim) for the hurt she must have experienced from my comments."

Dewar has also met with an expert on gender equality and is pursuing further professional development in that area.

Wittmann said due to Dewar's apology and willingness to undertake training, and given that the remarks were part of an isolated event, no further disciplinary action will be taken. He did, however, formally express his concerns to Dewar about Dewar's conduct.

While awaiting the CJC review, Manitoba Chief Justice Glenn Joyal had ordered Dewar not to sit on any trials involving sexual assault cases. Joyal lifted that restriction on Wednesday.

A spokeswoman for the Manitoba government said the province is pleased Dewar has apologized and that the CJC agreed with the province's concerns about Dewar's remarks.

Kirkfield Park NDP MLA Sharon Blady, who has a PhD in women's studies and once taught about these issues before becoming an MLA, said it's great Dewar took responsibility and apologized but she said the gender-equality training and understanding should have come before he was on the bench.

"Let's hope it's a teaching moment and not just for himself but for others," said Blady.

However, University of Winnipeg politics professor Shannon Sampert said the CJC did not go far enough to punish Dewar for the comments and believes they have done irreparable harm.

"I'd like to know how many women have made the decision not to come forward since he said that," she said. "What was the damage done?"

The CJC does not have authority to review trial decisions or sentences. The province is appealing the sentence and that appeal is still before the courts. At the same time, Rhodes is appealing his conviction.

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca