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Fondling of frigate-mates aboard HMCS Charlottetown earns navy officer a reprimand


Sub-Lt. Aidan Brownlee, 25, pleaded guilty Thursday at a Halifax court martial to three counts of behaving in a disgraceful manner while aboard HMCS Charlottetown. - Francis Campbell
Sub-Lt. Aidan Brownlee, 25, pleaded guilty Thursday at a Halifax court martial to three counts of behaving in a disgraceful manner while aboard HMCS Charlottetown. - Francis Campbell

A female navy officer who several times grabbed the genitals of male colleagues aboard HMCS Charlottetown was handed a severe reprimand and a $3,000 fine at a Halifax court martial Thursday.

Sub-Lt. Aidan Brownlee, 25, declined to make a statement when given the opportunity before being sentenced by Cmdr. Sandra Sukstorf, the judge presiding over this standing court martial at the CFB Halifax courtroom.

“I am sure that this will never happen again, at least I hope that it will never happen again,” Sukstorf told Brownlee after imposing the sentence jointly recommended by Maj. Patrice Germain, military prosecutor for the Atlantic region, and defence lawyer Lt.-Cmdr. Brent Walden.

Germain had earlier read off the statement of circumstances, confirming that on Oct. 27, 2017, while the Charlottetown was alongside Split, Croatia, another sailor was walking in a passageway close to the wardroom when he ran into Brownlee, a colleague and friend whom he believed had consumed some alcohol. Brownlee grabbed his genitals for a few seconds and left without saying anything.

In the days that followed, the colleague warned Brownlee that her behaviour was improper and that she could get into trouble. Despite the warning, while the Charlottetown was in Souda Bay, Greece, on Nov. 17, 2017, Brownlee again grabbed the same colleague’s genitals in a passageway on the navy frigate.

On the evening of Oct. 31, 2017, members of the Charlottetown crew were taking part in a social event in the wardroom while the frigate was still alongside Split. At one point during the evening, Brownlee deliberately grabbed another crew mate by the genitals.

“What the F,” the crewman said, and Brownlee replied, “Oh, I know you like it,” or words to that effect, Germain said, referring to the statement of circumstances.

A few hours later, Brownlee again grabbed the same colleague by the genitals and he reacted with the same utterance.

“These behaviours, individually, but also collectively in their repetitiveness and despite the warning, were harmful for the victims and cohesion of the offender’s unit,” Germain said.

Brownlee will pay her fine in $300 monthly instalments. The victims in the case declined the opportunity to submit impact statements.

Brownlee, who grew up in Sudbury, Ont., and has been a member of the Canadian Armed Forces since July 2012, pleaded guilty to three counts of behaving in a disgraceful manner. Sukstorf commented that Brownlee had served her country well and had no previous conduct sheet or criminal record. The judge did say that Brownlee’s “shockingly unacceptable” offence goes well beyond making the victims feel uncomfortable.

Sukstorf noted a lack of self-reflection as one of the aggravating factors in sentencing.

“On one occasion you were warned that touching could get you into trouble but nonetheless you did it a second time,” the judge said.

She said the guilty pleas were a mitigating factor in sentencing.

“The guilty pleas are particularly important,” Sukstorf said. “It ensured that this matter was dealt with quickly. It shows that you accepted responsibility and more importantly, ... the victims did not have to testify.

“It is absolutely imperative that the rest of the CAF community understand that this type of misconduct will not be tolerated.”

Sukstorf said a severe reprimand is reserved for very serious offences.

“It is intended to send a message to the larger community that inappropriate conduct, even involving minor touching, is unacceptable and will be punished. It will be a stain that stays on the member’s record for the foreseeable future.”

Germain said a severe reprimand is often used in conjunction with a fine to provide more impact.

“It can delay some progression,” Germain said. “I cannot give you a mathematical answer and I do not want to say that it is purely Victorian era heritage where you’ve been reprimanded and you hide in your room. It is a punishment in itself ... actually a more serious punishment than a fine, whatever the amount of the fine is.”

Germain said the sentence is a “great resolution” for the offence committed.

“This substantial sentence does show the gravity of the behaviour and the need for the behaviour not to happen.”

Before taking a short break to consider the sentence, Sukstorf mused aloud that cases involving such behaviour are becoming more prevalent.

“I am not really sure what’s going on, I am just noticing a pattern that has come up in several discipline events,” the judge said. She was urged by both lawyers to focus on the circumstances of the case against Brownlee and not to lop it in with other offences and cases.

The Brownlee case was somewhat unique in that the offender is a woman.

“There have been a couple of cases like this and it shows that the law is applied to everyone with no regard to the gender,” Germain said. “Even though it is a bit unusual, it is not necessarily that unusual for the past year or so.”

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