Gymnastics coach pleads guilty to sexual assault charges

WARNING: This article contains details of sexual abuse involving children.

A former gymnastics coach who worked in Ottawa and Kingston, Ont., has pleaded guilty to sex crimes against children and sentenced to four years in prison.

Benjamin Cooper, 28, pleaded guilty in Ottawa on Tuesday to five charges related to four victims. Their identities are protected by a publication ban.

Cooper pleaded guilty to three counts of sexual assault and one count of possession of child pornography. He also pleaded guilty to one count of assault after a third charge of sexual assault was reduced to this lesser charge. The offences occurred between 2014 and 2022.

According to the agreed statement of facts presented by Crown lawyer Louise Tansey, Gymnastics Ontario informed Ottawa police of the complaints against Cooper in 2022, sparking the investigation.

Cooper initially faced a total of 19 charges related to seven victims, all of whom qualified to provide victim impact statements based on an agreed statement of facts. The remaining charges were stayed.

Six of those victims, including one who was 11 when Cooper began coaching her, provided statements in court in which they described being groomed and manipulated by him. Some statements were read by the Crown's Shenille Lewis on their behalf.

'A disgrace to gymnastics'

The agreed statement of facts describes how Cooper connected with young girls as their coach or substitute coach, exchanging private messages through Snapchat or text that included sexually explicit videos and photos.

Tansey noted one of the girls was seven years younger than Cooper, and another almost four and half years younger.

One of the young women said she was motivated to come forward because she could no longer stomach the idea of Cooper preying on young girls at another gymnastics club.

"You're a disgrace to gymnastics," she said during her victim impact statement.

The young woman said Cooper began to "brainwash" her when she was 15, starting with social media messages about gymnastics that then got more personal.

She called him a threat to the community and children, and accused him of taking away her innocence and part of her adolescence. She said she doesn't want to think of herself as a victim, but rather a survivor of his manipulation and abuse.

Canada's gymnastics community is one of a number of groups who have called for a public inquiry into abuse sports.
Cooper's offences occurred between 2014 and 2022 while he was working at gymnastics clubs in Ottawa and Kingston, Ont. (Natacha Pisarenko/The Associated Press)

Another young woman described finding her purpose in competitive gymnastics as a young girl at the Ottawa club where she met Cooper. She said she now flinches when touched and turned to drinking to cope with the trauma.

"You, Ben Cooper, you did this to me and you had no right," she said in her prepared statement, speaking at times through tears. "You took an innocent, inspired little girl and, with your power and manipulation, you reduced her to nothing.

"I will forget you," she vowed.

Cooper mostly kept his eyes fixed ahead through the proceeding. More than a dozen young women were present in the courtroom.

Some described having to untangle the guilt and shame of being been abused by a coach they trusted as an authority figure.

"You're not sorry for what you did, you're sorry you got caught," another said during her victim impact statement.

Sentenced to 4 years

Cooper stood to address the court prior to the judge's sentencing decision.

"I'm sorry to all of you for the hurt that I have caused," he said. "Going forward, I will do everything I can to be a better person."

He briefly faced the public gallery to say, "I am truly sorry."

The Crown and defence submitted a joint position on sentencing to Ontario Superior Court Justice Norman Boxall.

Cooper's lawyer Dominic Lamb noted it was his client's first time facing criminal charges.

Lamb also noted Cooper's lifelong involvement in gymnastics would now end as a result of his actions. He said Cooper was on his way to completing legal studies at Queen's University at the time of his arrest, a career that will now be closed to him.

Tansey said no sentence could undo the "waves of harm" that Cooper had caused his victims, his colleagues and the sport of gymnastics.

Cooper used gymnastics as a way of gaining access to his victims, she said. "He used his role to pursue them outside the gym."

She said the women who came forward seeking justice embodied the true ideals of sport.

Ottawa Police headquarters at 417 Elgin St.
Gymnastics Ontario reported complaints about Cooper to Ottawa police, according to the agreed statement of facts at the trial. (Judy Trinh/CBC)

In his sentencing decision, Boxall also commended the women for coming forward to initiate the investigation, and thanked them for their victim impact statements. He accepted the joint submission from the Crown and defence.

In addition to his prison term, Cooper will be registered as a sex offender, required to provide a DNA sample and cannot contact certain people involved in the case.

Among the other conditions, for 10 years he cannot enter gymnastics or other recreational facilities where children younger than 16 may be present, nor communicate with children under the age of 16 other than those related to him, and only in the presence of another adult.

On Wednesday, Gymnastics Ontario wrote in an email to all member clubs that it has banned Cooper for life.

For anyone who has been sexually assaulted, there is support available through crisis lines and local support services via this Government of Canada website or the Ending Violence Association of Canada database. If you're in immediate danger or fear for your safety or that of others around you, please call 911.