A Calgary man convicted of a sexual assault has been given an unusual sentence.
Along with probation and community service, Zach Welch was ordered to make a public apology to his victim over social media.
“You will disable the ability of anyone to comment on that posting and it will remain on your Facebook account for one month,” Justice Lynal Doerksen wrote in her probation order.
The assault happened in March 2018 during a weekend getaway to Fairmont Hot Springs, B.C. Melanie Ykema says a group of friends, all couples, had rented a house to celebrate her birthday.
The 30-year-old Calgary mom still struggles to talk about the incident. She says she was groped by a man she had thought of as a friend.
“I didn’t scream; I didn’t hit him. I just froze because I was so scared.”
Welch pleaded guilty to a charge of sexual assault.
Emily Laidlaw, a professor of law at the University of Calgary, says a judgement like this one is rare, especially in Canada.
“I have some concerns when I hear about this form of punishment being imposed by the judiciary. I mean, in essence, it’s a form of public humiliation,” Laidlaw said.
“The idea that sharing on social media in this way is going to be effective is something we should all question. It should make us pause.”
Those who advocate for victims of sexual assault have concerns, as well. Calgary Communities against Sexual Abuse CEO Danielle Aubry says unless these posts are carefully vetted, they run the risk of re-victimizing survivors.
“We know that sexual assault myths and victim-blaming language can be very nuanced or very direct, so that would be my concern, that there might be some of that in there,” Aubry said.
Ykema says she welcomed the post. Since the assault, she says she’s lost many friends, people who have told her they don’t believe the assault happened. To her, the judge’s social media order was a chance to set the record straight.
“If he was to have to do a social media apology, then he would have to take accountability for it on a public forum,” she said, “and then there would be no discrepancy in what he’s saying inside the courtroom and what he’s saying outside the courtroom.”
In the end, however, there was a problem with the judge’s order — you can’t actually turn off comment on a personal Facebook page, so that condition was removed.
Instead, Welch was ordered to write a private letter, on paper, to Ykema. It was a deeply disappointing development for Ykema, who says she now feels like justice hasn’t been served.